Friday, January 25, 2013

SOP Friday: On Call and Night Staff

This post is not about the client side of After Hours Work, but strictly about your employees. It does refer to the Tech On Call for the Day. You might also want to review the after-hours portion of the Server Down Procedures.

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Disclaimer: I'm not an employment attorney. I'm not any other kind of attorney. I only have enough common sense to know what we do in our business. You need to verify all employment policies with your attorney.

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Paying Employees to Be On Call

When you grow from one to many, one of the rewards is that you - the owner - no longer have to be the only person "On Call" twenty four hours a day. You get to go on vacation because someone else is handling the details.

You also get to sleep without a cell phone next to your bed because someone else is going to get that call!

There are three primary kinds of "on call" statuses. There are different rules for each.

1. An employee is off the clock but can't go anywhere. For example, if someone has to stay in the office during their lunch hour to cover the phones or fill in for the front desk, you need to pay that person for the time. Basically, they are not free to do what they want. They have to stay there to do your bidding. Similarly, if you send a tech to a client's office. Once they arrive, their "commute" is over and they need to be paid - even if the client is not there. Again, if the employee can't go do his own thing, then you need to pay him.

2. Employees are not at work, not scheduled to be called in, but are on the list of people who could be called in. This is aside from the fact that, really, anyone in the company could be asked to come in. Sometimes you specifically say that Person A is scheduled to work and Person B is on call in case we get busy. If Person B cannot go out of town on a whim or go drinking in the afternoon because he might have to work, then you have limited his personal time.

3. Employees who are scheduled to catch calls after hours. Just like working through lunch, these folks may never actually get a call. But they have to carry their cell phone, respond to alerts, and be ready to remote into client machines and fix things. If there is an after-hours emergency, these folks will do the after hours work and client call-down discussed in the Server Down Procedures article.

We used to call this beeper pay. Now the term is sleeper pay. But unless you're paying someone to sleep at your office, you might not have to pay them at all.

Note that #1 is pretty clear. These folks just can't go anywhere except where you need them to be. You need to pay them for that. Period.

Examples #2 and #3 are a little less clear. There's really a scale from almost-zero chance of having to work to 50% or 60% chance of having to work. In most cases, after-hours on call duty is pretty close to zero. But if they do get a call, they need to be able to respond, so they can't be otherwise engaged. Again, where on that sliding scale have you limited their freedom?

Part of this is just plain fairness. And part of it bumps into the laws of your state. Very often, there are no clear rules. But also very often, there are decisions by judges that become standards for other judges to use when they make decisions.

Now, just to keep it complicated, simply requiring someone to be reachable by phone is NOT considered to be restricting enough to require pay. So if you don't say anything about limiting activities (e.g., drinking) or travel, then simply being available by phone is not required to be a paid event.

If you don't have Continuum, Level Platforms, PacketTrap, or some other service that can send out an alert, then you may have to require someone to check the service board once an hour. Now we're back into the scale discussion. How much does this limit their time, especially when no work comes in?

As a general rule, the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act does not require that "exempt" or salaried employees be compensated for on-call duty. Thus the entire discussion applies to only hourly employees.

[Insert here your favorite "why people hate lawyers" joke or comment.]

Practical Recommendations

Enough speculation and legalese. Here's some practical advice to consider when you formulate your after-hours on call policy.

First, let fairness be your guide. Be reasonable with your employees and they will be reasonable with you. This is particularly true if your company is very small. The last thing you need is some smoldering resentment because someone once had to work an hour in the middle of the night.

Second, if feasible, you should rotate after hours and on call assignments among managers and other salaried employees. Assuming that you really get very few after-hours calls or alerts, this is just a very minor limitation and very reasonable for their slightly-higher compensation. Note that the rest of the suggestions here will help make this even less of an annoyance.

Third, for hourly employees, set a reasonable compensation. For example, pay them time and a half for any hours outside their regular work hours. And pay a minimum of one hour or two hours for work that actually has to be done.

Fourth, set a long response time in your service agreement. For example, if you have a three hour response time, then your employee has lots of freedom. In three hours your employee can finish watching a kid's soccer game, drive back from the lake, or even sober up if need be.

And remember that "responding" to an alert might not really require any work. If the employee just has to acknowledge the ticket and assign it to the team at Continuum, that's a three minute task. It's only when they have to sit down at their computer and log into a client machine, or drive to the client office, that serious labor takes place.

Fifth, consider a response time in Business Hours. That's what we do. If you say you'll respond within three business hours, then a call at 6:01 PM does not need to be acknowledged until 11:01 AM the next day. (Of course you'll respond at 8:05 AM.) This eliminates after hours on call work altogether.

You might not be comfortable with that, but you can get used to it. As I've said before, 99% of the after hours work you do is because you've decided to do it, not because you really have to.

We have used a business hours response time policy for about seven years now. It has never been an issue. We've had a few incidents in which someone has sent nagging emails and voice mails until we called them back. Then we mention that our after-hours rate is $300/hr. See the article on After Hours Work. Too bad we don't charge a "pissing me off by bugging me after hours" fee.

Sixth, if you have hourly employees on call, give them some minimal reward for being on call even if there are no calls. This could be a $25 gift card or something similar. You don't have to think of this as "pay" but more of a token of appreciation. This can go a long way to let employees know that you acknowledge their contribution even if they don't get an hour's pay.

Seventh (and I'm sorry about this), write up your very reasonable, well-thought-out policy and have it reviewed by a lawyer. She will make a minor change even if it's perfect because she has to earn her money. But once she blesses it, you're good to go.

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I know a lot of this is a pain in the neck. But it is definitely worth the time and effort. After all, once you have a good workable policy, you'll be able to sleep at night without your phone on!

Comments welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

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Next week's topic: Employee Review Procedure (Quarterly or Annual)


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  1. Anonymous5:22 AM

    We do the same thing with a little twist.

    No one in my company is allowed to give out Cell phone #s. This ensures all clients go through the standard communication channels.

    When someone calls afterhours our automated attendant has three options.

    1: “If you have a non-emergency stay on the line and we will contact you the next business day. If you have an emergency please press 2 now”

    2: “If you do not have a 24/7 contract stay on the line and leave a message. We will place this call as a priority for the next business day. If you are interested in 24/7 support say that in the message as well and we will discuss your options. If you have a 24/7 contract press 3 now”

    3: “The 24/7 message states that they are being transferred to a 24/7 technician and to stay on the line. If you do not have a 24/7 contract contact us during normal business hours and we can discuss this option.” This forwards out to our afterhours company. They email us anyone not on the Contract list. Then we follow up with them.

    This sets the tone for an upsell while minimizing our afterhours calls.

    1. As a technician, I learned fast that none of us should be giving out cellular numbers. That's a recipe for chaos. The office number is the only number any client should ever have, no matter how much they protest. The first thing that should be done when a client calls, any time, is that a ticket should be updated or created. If I'm out climbing a mountain or sitting on the floor with someone's server in pieces, the whole system breaks down. Let the office voice mail system route the call.

      For the business owner, it also strengthens the identity of the business as opposed to the individual technicians. If the client is calling the technician directly, it makes it easier for the technician to take the client with him if he leaves for any reason.

  2. Anon - We don't give out individual cell phone numbers either.

    I like the idea of letting people screen themselves when they call in after hours.

    We also continually remind people that putting a service request into the client access portal is the fastest way to get support.


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