In the 1940’s, a soap company in Chicago hired a small crew of firefighters to live on the premises and be available for emergencies. The crew officially worked a nine-hour shift but were also required to sleep in a designated location and respond alarms, if necessary. A legal dispute arose about whether the “on call” time should have been compensated as hours worked. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it did, with Justice Robert Jackson stating:
“Of course an employer, if he chooses, may hire a man to do nothing, or to do nothing but wait for something to happen. Refraining from other activity often is a factor of instant readiness to serve, and idleness plays a part in all employments in a stand-by capacity. Readiness to serve may be hired, quite as much as service itself, and time spent lying in wait for threats to the safety of the employer’s property may be treated by the parties as a benefit to the employer.” Armour & Co. v. Wantock (1944) 323 U.S. 126, 133.
The Supreme Court’s ruling opened the door for a litany of subsequent cases on the issue of “on call pay.” In the days of modern cellphone technology, the issue has become even more complex. After all, with a cellphone in every pocket, a beckoning call from an employer is just seconds away.