Sometimes it feels like employees have so many rights, they get to choose what they will do and when they will do it. This may be true to some extent if the employee is entitled to a schedule adjustment as a reasonable accommodation for medical needs (American with Disabilities Act) or religious needs (Title VII), or if they need a reduced or intermittent work schedule for medical/military family reasons (Family and Medical Leave Act). But in the normal course of events, it is actually the employer’s decision to determine what needs to be done and on what schedule – and that these determinations can change, depending on business needs. A recent case, Huang v. Continental Casualty Co., provides a reminder to employers that you are, in fact, in charge (well, most of the time, anyway).
After working eight years for the employer, a system and software engineer was reassigned to a new team and given new duties, which included once-a-month pager duty on a weekend. The engineer (and the other members of his team) would have to carry a pager and be available 24 hours a day during the assigned monthly weekend on duty. The engineer refused to work weekends because of family reasons, even though his supervisor and Human Resources told him it was a work requirement and that he could be fired for his refusal. He offered to come into the office on Sundays instead of Mondays, but would not be on pager duty otherwise during the weekend. The engineer was subsequently fired for his continuing refusal of weekend pager duty.
The engineer then sued, alleging race and national origin discrimination, along with retaliation. He argued that he was meeting the employer’s legitimate job expectations because: (1) he offered a suitable alternative to the pager duty requirement by offering to come in on Sundays rather than Mondays; (2) he had a good reason to refuse pager duty – he wanted to spend more time with his family; and (3) the pager duty was not legitimate because it wasn’t in his job description.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit rejected all of his arguments, however. First, the Court noted that “employers are entitled to determine their scheduling needs.” The offer to work Sundays did not meet the employer’s need to have an employee available 24 hours a day the whole weekend long. Second, although the Court observed that “although a longing to spend more time with family is understandable” (the Court has never met my teenagers!), it went on to state that this longing “does not undermine the legitimacy of a work schedule that cuts into family time.” Basically, his “preference for home life” could not trump the employer’s work expectations. Finally, the Court noted that pager duty did not need to be memorialized in a job description in order to be a valid employment expectation.
Bottom line – an employee’s personal preference, or even their family needs (e.g. childcare, school, etc.) should not control the schedule that the employer sets. As a matter of employee morale, an employer might try to accommodate the personal scheduling preferences of employees, although there is no legal requirement to do so. But if the employer determines that a particular work schedule is required by business needs, employees must comply with that requirement.