Can an employee be forced to work overtime?

My 19-year-old son was told that if he didn’t work 60 hours a week working graveyards, he would be fired. Is mandatory overtime even legal?



I was recently asked if a 19-year-old could legally be fired if he didn’t work 60 hours a week working graveyards. The answer? Yes.

Mandatory overtime is legal, except in cases where there’s an employment contract or union that limits how much an employee is required to work. Otherwise, the relationship is considered employment-at-will, and the employee can be fired for refusing to work overtime.

Is mandating overtime a best practice? No. Read on for more information.

Why employers can legally require overtime

There are several laws and federal agencies that govern employee work conditions and appropriate wages, but hour restrictions end at age 16. The FLSA does, however, require any time worked in excess of 40 hours a week to be paid at a rate of time-and-a-half to ensure employees are fairly compensated.

Note that rules vary for "exempt" employees (learn more about exempt employees here). If you have concerns regarding unsafe work conditions, please visit

Concerns of working mandatory overtime

While mandatory overtime is frequently used to maximize scarce resources, the effects can be damaging to both the workers’ health and the company’s bottom line when overtime is ongoing.

According to OSHA, "Extended or unusual work shifts may be more stressful physically, mentally, and emotionally. Non-traditional shifts and extended work hours may disrupt the body's regular schedule, leading to increased fatigue, stress, and lack of concentration. These effects lead to an increased risk of operator error, injuries and/or accidents."

Employees who are overworked typically sleep less and make poor decisions in terms of nutrition and exercise, which can lead to a number of health issues. These health issues may also lead to an increase in sick days, higher turnover, rising health insurance costs, more employee errors, and more frequent (and potentially more serious) workplace injuries resulting in expensive workers’ comp claims.

Overall, OSHA estimates the loss of fatigue-related, productive work time costs employers $136.4 billion annually. This number doesn’t include the resentment and lower workplace morale that oftentimes stem from overworked employees.

What alternative options are there to requiring mandatory overtime?

When employees are required to work overtime, it’s typically because the company has resolved that this is the most cost-effective way to handle the workload. As an HR professional, threatening to fire an employee who is unwilling to work overtime is rarely advisable and should only be used as a last resort. As an alternative, employers should consider the following options before mandating overtime:

  • Allow employees to volunteer for overtime shifts
  • Hire temp employees through a staffing agency
  • Hire part-time employees to cover the extra work

Can an employer require employees to not work more than 40 hours in a week?

Yes, employers can create rules and policies that require nonexempt employees to clock out before going beyond 40 hours in a single workweek to avoid paying overtime. However, if an employee clocks out but continues to work, the employee must be compensated for that time.

If the company has a policy against working more than 40 hours and an employee works more anyway, the employer must pay appropriate overtime wages. However, the employee may be subject to disciplinary action for working more than 40 hours.

For questions about your specific situation, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.

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