The Unfortunate Truth About At-Will Employment

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Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
April 12, 2024 at 7:12PM UTC
After a killer week at work, the stress of it all can start to get to you. All you want is a slow morning spent in your slippers, with a bottomless cup of coffee and a good long book. You intend to enjoy every last second of your day off. And then your boss says, "Hey, I need you to come in tomorrow."
Record scratch. Work, on your day off? That can't be legal, can it? While you, of course, have the urge to just say "Forget it, I'm just not going in tomorrow," take a second. Ask yourself, "Can I get fired for not working on my day off?" Because the answer might surprise you.

Can I really get fired for not working on my day off?

YES. As unfair as it may seem, in most states, employers and employees have an "at-will employment" agreement. That means you can quit your job at any time and pretty much for any reason. Unfortunately, this also means your employer can terminate your employment with them at any time as well and for almost any reason.
There are a few legal restrictions, largely having to do with discrimination based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. You also can't legally be terminated just because you've filed complaints against your employer or someone in your workplace, nor can you be let go over disputes about things like medical leave.
Having to work on your Sunday Fun Day? Sorry, doesn't count.

Can I get fired for refusing to work overtime?

Coming in on the heels of "Can I get fired for not working on my day off?" is probably a concern about getting fired for refusing to work overtime. Again, the general answer is yes. And again, it has to do with at-will employment. When you enter into a contract with an employer, the basic agreement is that they will pay you to work, so long as you work for the money.
There are some restrictions around how many hours you can work in a row and how many breaks you have to take per so many hours worked. But your employer isn't legally obligated to take your work/life balance into account when setting your schedule. So, refusing to work overtime is akin to breaking that contract: they will pay you to do this work, but you're refusing to do that work. And so it's within their rights to terminate your employment.

How do I say no to working on my day off?

Not every employer is going to be hard-nosed about working on your scheduled days off and make it mandatory that you come in. But they might pull the "It would really be great if..." thing which, we all know, can be quite difficult to turn down. You end up feeling bad for not helping your boss or letting down other coworkers who will also be going in on their own days off — which can make you feel not only like a bad employee but a bad person as well.
But let's face it. We all need time to rest and recharge. If your boss is asking you, again, to come in tomorrow, stay a little longer today or come back in tonight: hold fast. The most important thing to do when saying no is to be firm and clear. Don't feel compelled to offer excuses; a simple "that doesn't work for me" should suffice. Be nice, but hold the line. You deserve time away from work.

Can my employer change my work schedule without notice?

Yes and no. Federal law says yes, but some states have their own labor laws that can supersede the federal. And a number of those laws state that employers need to make changes at least a week or more in advance, giving you ample warning. They're also required to pay increased wages, should the schedule be modified with less warning. 
As always, being versed in federal and state labor laws is a good idea for all employees, regardless of industry. Know your rights and what will and won't get you fired.

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About the Career Expert:

Heather Adams has designed (and re-designed) many business cards. She also writes, makes pictures & creates little notes. As a content creator, she believes that the art of business is storytelling. From brand work to writing the copy that converts, the power of good storytelling is what builds success. Follow her work here.

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