Can my employer terminate me for refusing to work overtime if doing so creates a health risk to me or if they are operating unsafely?

I am a 53 year old male who has been employed in the warehouse where I am required to stay each day until every order that drops on a given workday ships. The work is very fast paced and physical, requiring workers to repeatedly lift and carry cartons averaging 50 pounds. Moreover, pallets of merchandise in are kept stacked 2 or sometimes even 3 high in areas in which I perform these tasks. There is often less than 3 feet of access to move the boxes. I am experiencing chronic fatigue and other symptoms of depression. I am also arthritic. My employer has difficulty retaining workers. There is a persistent culture of verbal assault in the workplace due to the stress that workers are put under. If a worker is viewed as not pulling his weight he is often singled out and harassed. Management is aware of these conditions but has done nothing to remedy them.

Asked on April 1, 2017 under Employment Labor Law, California


M.D., Member, California and New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

First of all, workplace harrassment does not give rise to a claim for a hostile work enviornment unless some form of discrimination/retaliation is involved, and you gave no indication this to be the case. Therefore while seemingly unprofessional, your situation does not give rise to such a claim. As for being made to work overtime even if you feel that it puts you at some type of risk, you must work the hours that you are scheduled. In an "at will" employment situation, a business can set the conditions of the workplace much as it sees fit. This inlcudes how many hours an employee is set to work. Accordingly, unless this action and/or your treatment violates the terms of a union/collective bargaining agreement or employment contract, it is legal.

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

Yes, they can terminate you if your refuse to work overtime, even if you perceive that there is a health risk to you, such as due to you fatigue, depression, or arthritis. Employers determine employee hours; it is completely up to the employer. Employees have no right to work fewer hours or to refuse to work overtime. If you do, for any reason, that is grounds to terminate you. That the workplace is stressful and the culture one of harassment is not relevant: employment is allowed to be stressfull, unpleasant, fatiguing, etc. and employers may verbally assult or belittle employees. All of this flows out of the law of the land: employment at will. That means that employers can set any hours and any work conditions they like; they can terminate employees who won't put up with those hours and conditions, or the employees can quit at will and seek other employment. Unfortunately, as difficult as finding another job often is, that is often the only recourse: the law does not require workplaces to be decent or even reasonable places to work.

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