A new work schedule and the pitfalls of “at-will” employment

My boss changed my hours. Is there anything I can do?

Q: In December, our company owner told us there may be changes in our hours and shifts and that he was “figuring it all out” but that our preferences would be heard. Each of us met with him and explained our preferred hours. Last week he sat down with us and told us that as of February 1st our hours would be changing. I currently work 8am to 5pm, which are what I would like to work. I was told that twice per week, I would now need to work until 7pm. Is this legal in Massachusetts? Can an employer just change an employee’s hours to suit their needs with very little warning?

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A: In Massachusetts, most employees are “at-will.” This term means that an employee is not a member of a union or protected by a collective bargaining agreement. For non-unionized employees, employers are permitted to change many of the terms and conditions of an employee’s position. For example, an employee may be asked to take on a new task. Or an employer may move from Boston to Needham. A change in hours can be changed by an employer and it is usually legal. Minors have some protection against the hours they can work legally but these restrictions end when an employee turns 18 years old.

I would ask your owner if there is any flexibility in the requirement to work until 7 p.m. twice per week. Maybe it is just for a short time? Or maybe another employee would like to take on this schedule? Many of us are working longer hours, sometimes not by choice. If no alternative exists, I would try it for a while, if possible. Maybe traffic will be lighter and your commute might be quicker? If the later shift does not work for you, you may need to consider other employment options. For example, if you have a childcare pick up at 5:30 p.m., you may not be able to try a later schedule.

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I probably have not shared the answer you were hoping to receive. However, it may be worth approaching the business owner, in a respectful way, to determine if there are any other options available.

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