What can employers require employees to disclose?
January 3, 2011 10:36 AM   Subscribe

What limits are there on employers requesting information about personal activities outside the workplace?

My wife works as a research assistant for a public university. She is unclassified, unrepresented, salaried, and exempt. The office she works in has regular working hours, but occasionally must accommodate patients after 5pm. Her immediate superiors have just now told my wife and her coworkers that they must inform them one month in advance of plans to take an evening class. This is in the state of Ohio.

I am curious to know what the law says about this. Can an employer legally require employees to disclose information about personal matters that are not work-related?
posted by dvrcthewrld to Law & Government (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do they want to know information about the class or do they just want to be alerted to schedule conflicts? I mean, if she says "Starting February 1, I will be unavailable from 7-9pm Tuesdays and Thursdays," will they be satisfied? (Because that seems entirely reasonable to me.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:38 AM on January 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

It seems to me that if they need to schedule people to be on call after 5pm, it's entirely work related.

I've worked in IT for a couple of large universities as well as the federal government, and being on call for a weekend meant that I was required to stay within a reasonable distance of my office in the event I needed to respond to a call.
posted by Oktober at 10:40 AM on January 3, 2011

Working in the state of Ohio myself, I'd lean towards Oktober's question. Is she on call, or in a situation where she might be required to come in on short notice? Are they doing experiments or lab work that would be best performend after "regular hours" that she might need to be available for? If so, yes, that's reasonable that they ask about the classes to avoid conflicts.
posted by BZArcher at 10:47 AM on January 3, 2011

There is a "universal on-call pager" that gets circulated from one person to another for week-long periods according to a schedule set atleast 6 months in advance.

They have told a girl in the office that she cannot take a class that she is trying to get into because they weren't given enough notice. (The class is full, so she will not know if she is in until speaking to the prof directly.)

This question also gets into the question of how much time can a person in my wife's position be asked to work in a given day. Can she legitimately be told that she needs to stay 3 hours past to complete a completely new task, something out of the norm for her position?
posted by dvrcthewrld at 10:48 AM on January 3, 2011

She has never been asked to come in on short notice. Her on-call duties, for the 2 weeks out of the year when she has them, only include handling emergency phone calls.
posted by dvrcthewrld at 10:50 AM on January 3, 2011

If she's salaried and exempt, then yeah, they can ask her to work overtime. That's pretty much what that means. Now, whether or not she *should* be exempt is sometimes a question for the courts, but in general the issue is not whether they can ask for overtime, but whether or not they have to pay overtime rates. As far as I know there are no laws about how many consecutive hours someone is allowed to work in most professions. (I worked for the federal government over the summer, and a couple of folks pulled (voluntary) 26-hour days during a crunch because oh my god the money was good.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:52 AM on January 3, 2011

Can she legitimately be told that she needs to stay 3 hours past to complete a completely new task, something out of the norm for her position?

Ohio is an at-will state. Barring sexual/racial/disability discrimination, there's basically nothing that's illegitimate from a legal perspective, particularly as she's exempt and salaried.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:53 AM on January 3, 2011

from a second of googling, it appears that Ohio is an at-will employment state, which means her employers can ask her to work as much overtime as they want. she's free to find another job and they're free to fire her if she doesn't comply. it sucks and it's lame. my husband has been on near constant overtime for months now, only given out 2 or 3 days at a time, so we basically have to schedule 12 hours around his 8 hour work day, "just in case."
posted by nadawi at 10:56 AM on January 3, 2011

If she has to be available to take calls, it makes sense that they would expect notification if she's going to be unavailable during a certain period. Even if she could step out of class during a normal classroom session, it wouldn't work during exams etc. and so it would be a conflict they'd need to schedule around.
posted by Lady Li at 10:57 AM on January 3, 2011

Also, from what you've said, it doesn't really sound like they're asking for information about what people are doing after work - they're basically saying "in order to build our schedules far enough in advance, we need to know about your evening availability at least one month out." This is annoying but not particularly Big Brothery or intrusive.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:57 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

To clarify: I mean "intrusive" in the sense of "it's intrusive of employers to ask for information not strictly necessary for work purposes;" certainly it's intrusive in the sense of "can I do whatever I want with my time after hours."
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:58 AM on January 3, 2011

Am I to understand that, in the state of Ohio, an employer can require complete access to an employee's schedule in order to schedule "work stuff"?

And an employer can call an employee at 2am, tell them to come into work, and, if the employer refuses, that person can be legitimately, legally terminated for that reason alone?
posted by dvrcthewrld at 11:03 AM on January 3, 2011

an employer can fire and employee for any reason that isn't discriminatory, as long as they follow the procedures (usually write ups, final warning, termination). refusing to work overtime would certainly be one of these reasons at any job i've ever worked (i've only ever worked in at-will states).

to my eyes, they're asking for advanced notice of the classes so they can tell your wife ahead of time if there will be a conflict, instead of waiting until she pays her money for the class and then finds out it's either the class or her job.
posted by nadawi at 11:07 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey, I thought I remembered you from a previous question.

My answer is NOT meant to be purposefully oblique, so I apologize if it comes off as such.

Your state, like mine, is at "at-will" employment state. This means that employees can be terminated for any reason, at any time. There is technically a provision in there which excludes "illegal" reasons for termination (discrimination, etc), but in reality, they can fire you for any offense and claim it's for any OTHER offense. 99% of employees have committed offenses which could merit petty "technicality" firings at some point... if they want to fire you for being blue-skinned or wearing Hypercolor t-shirts, they can certainly CLAIM they're firing you for spending too much time on eBay. Ya dig?

My company is part of a very high-pressure, high-stress industry. In my department ALONE - which comprises a few dozen people - I've seen 99 people get hired and 113 of 'em get fired. This was in the span of less than eight years. Sometimes, it's seemed like a Cuisinart of employees... IT talent goes in, a big mush of pink slips and human suffering comes out.

While a few of the firings were perplexing, about 95% of 'em had one thing in common: the employee in question did not keep their big mouth shut. I hate to be that blunt, but that's all it boiled down to. People who do their job at a certain minimal level of competence and SHUT THE FUCK UP stick around. People who make too much noise and/or make the company overly-aware of their presence get canned.

It isn't necessarily right or fair. But it is the way of the world. You can either be vocally principled OR you can keep your job. In most cases, you cannot do both.

Between your previous question and this one, I have to wonder how much you and/or your wife wants her to retain her position. One instance of taking a stand can be forgotten/forgiven by The Powers That Be. TWO instances makes a pattern... and if my 113 former coworkers are any indicator, it's a pattern which leads straight to the unemployment line.
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:10 AM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

did they ask specifically for classes or for just any other evening activities that might conflict with her occasional evening hours? such as if she were part of a sports team or had a knitting circle or whatever.

not sure it makes a difference but thought i'd ask.
posted by sio42 at 11:11 AM on January 3, 2011

The only state that does not follow the doctrine of at-will employment is Montana.

No one, except I suppose Montanans, needs to specify whether or not they "live in an at-will" state.

To the poster - sure, an employer could call an employee at 2am and tell them to come in. An employer could require a million annoying, insulting, and stupid things of their employees. Of course, that would be a highly stupid way to run a business, but it could be done. Virtually all the power in the employer/employee relationship lies with the employer, unless you have a union w/ a contract, or own an individual employment contract. That's why we need more unions in this country.
posted by RajahKing at 11:18 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

IANAL, in Ohio or otherwise, but if a regular part of the job as it was explained to your wife at the time of hire was occasional on-call service after 5 PM, asking her to supply her availability (I'm assuming they're not asking for details on what she does after work, but correct me if they are) after 5 PM for the next month in order to schedule said on-call service is neither out of the ordinary nor beyond the scope of the job as she accepted it.

It might be a different story if she wasn't made aware of the occasional evening on-call requirement when she was hired, and this is suddenly now being sprung on her. But that doesn't sound like it's the case.

Does it suck? Sure, it might, depending on a number of factors. But it sounds like they're just trying to get a handle on everyone's schedule so that they know when the need arises that Mary isn't available to accommodate patients in the evening on Mondays in February but Peter is, or whatever, and that's just logistical and also quite legal, as far as I know.
posted by superfluousm at 12:06 PM on January 3, 2011

Piggybacking on restless_nomad's comment above: at the large university where I work, the concept of paid overtime does not exist for salaried unclassified employees. For example, a colleague of mine went out-of-state for a big university event last weekend, spending time working while the rest of us were on mandatory state furlough, legal holiday and weekend time. To compensate for those hours, he is now out for the next few days. Either way, he gets a 40-hour work week.

As it says in our departmental handbook, we are expected to complete our work in a 40-hour workweek. Extra time may be necessary but is not accumulated or planned to account for a recent or future absence.

The colleague listed above, among others, also manages our pager. As I have seen it, the pager holders are required to stay close but aren't on the clock until something happens and they have to manage the situation from wherever they are. If something happens at 3 AM, then, they're usually okayed to come in a bit late that morning. But this is just how our office works because we're nice; doing stuff tit-for-tat is pretty much what salaried positions are meant to avoid. In return, the salaries themselves are pretty dang good.

The flip side of that is why I chose to leave a software company that took advantage of my time -- including forbidding me to work at any other job, even something innocuous like PartyLite. Bottom line: if you don't like the way it works, you're welcome to not work there.
posted by Madamina at 12:51 PM on January 3, 2011

She may be covered by an employment manual. It would likely be online. If classes are part of her compensation, restricting or prohibiting them may not be ok. The state attorney general's website will list the Labor Relations office; ask them this question and any others.

The approach I'd take is: I want to take a class, have a life, etc. I understand the need for evening coverage. Can I work out a deal with another staff member so that we can provide coverage and still have some scheduling flexibility?
posted by theora55 at 1:46 PM on January 3, 2011

Yikes! I am guessing your wife is not protected by a union/collective bargaining unit.
Scheduling employees for "on-call" work seems to be the norm in many industries, and if that is part of the job then it seems your wife has to accept that part of it but asking their permission to take a course outside of work hours? Where is the justification in that? Since staff members only have the pager for 2 weeks out of a whole year and the pager doesn't demand more than returning an emergency research call it's really hard to defend their position. If it were me I'd probably just take the evening class and hope the pager didn't buzz during class. (which it probably won't just based on the information you've given) and if it did go off I could just slip out of class and return the call. And as a manager of 50 people I would encourage my staff to do the same in the situation you are describing. No one should be expected to suspend a whole semester of learning for 2 weeks of possible pager activity.

Of course as many people have already said: whether her employer is right or wrong is probably moot. If she wants to keep this job she will likely just have to put up with it while searching for something better.

I would love to know what would constitute an emergency worthy of paging a research assistant: as a public librarian it's hard to imagine something that couldn't wait until 8:00 the following day.
posted by Ranindaripley at 1:51 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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