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Can an employer force you to cover shifts? By Debbie Taggio

It can be particularly stressful when your employer is short-staffed, and your line-manager is doing the rounds with their clipboard looking for “volunteers” to cover shifts. It might not be easy, or even possible, to step into the breach. You may have difficulties arranging childcare or have to care for other relatives, you may not even want to do extra work. Whatever your reason, what is the legal position, do you have to work overtime?

You are only obligated to perform the work as set out in your contract of employment. Your contract may cover situations such as “overtime”, usually something along the lines of “reasonable overtime may from time to time be required, in accordance with the needs of the business.” In these circumstances, your employer should have a clear policy in place as to how overtime is requested, authorised, and recorded. Including how overtime pay is calculated.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that around five million workers are not paid for overtime they’ve worked each year.  In 2019 alone, UK employees gave their employers more than £35 billion – yes billion! of free labour. This is equivalent to having £6,828 taken out of individual pay packets.

Every February, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) who is the voice of Britain at work, campaign to highlight excessive unpaid overtime with “Work Your Proper Hours Day”. It marks the fact, that for the average worker, unpaid overtime is equivalent to not being paid for any work they’ve done from the beginning of the year until that day.

If you are having trouble with unwanted overtime requests, it is always advisable (at least initially) to have a quiet word with your line manager, if you feel you are able. Being part of a union may help as there may be others at your workplace who are in the same position. Being part of a collective approach may be a good way forward because it provides strength in numbers.

If overtime is problematic because it is interfering with your care arrangements, whether that be for children, or other family members you are responsible for and your employer is insisting you do your fair share despite them being fully aware of your situation, your employer may be guilty of indirect discrimination by unreasonably insisting you do the overtime. In this case, you may decide to raise a grievance by following your employer’s grievance procedure.

You may find it difficult to work overtime hours due to a disability. In this case, your employer owes you a legal duty of care to make reasonable adjustments to your working schedule at your request to accommodate this. Failure to make reasonable adjustments may amount to direct discrimination. Again, if the issue is not resolved, you may need to raise a grievance.

Whatever your circumstances or reasons for your inability to do overtime, it is always best to speak with your manager to avoid any grievances or resentments further down the line. This will have the effect of reducing your stress and anxiety every time that clipboard comes out.

NOTE: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your specific situation. Make sure you get individual advice on your case from an independent source before taking any action.

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