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Helping You Navigate Workplace Issues in California

California Nurses and Overtime: Understanding Your Rights as a Nurse in the California Workplace


Nurses are the heartbeat of California’s health care system. These dedicated professionals often find themselves work long hours in stressful conditions, but what are California laws regarding paying nurses in the workplace?

Overtime and the Alternative Work Week

As you probably know, federal and state law requires employers to pay most of their employees overtime wages if they work more than a certain number of hours per week. You often hear this rule expressed as “more than 8 hours per day” (state law) or “more than 40 hours per week”(federal law).  This is true, but when we are talking about health professionals like nurses, things work a bit differently. After all, hospitals are 24/7 operations that do not follow the normal 9-to-5 work schedule.

For this reason, California law allows health care employers to adopt an “alternative work week.” Basically, this allows the employer to schedule nurses for more than 8 hours of work in a given workday (a 24-hour period) without triggering overtime requirements if certain conditions are met. These conditions include:

  • Before adopting an alternative work week, the employer must first conduct a secret ballot among the affected employees where they can vote or for or against the idea.
  • The alternative work week itself must still follow a fixed, regular schedule.
  • The employer must register its alternative work week, together with the results of the election described above, to the California Division of Labor Statistics and Research–if the election is not registered, it is not valid under state law.

If approved, the alternative work week simply means a nurse can work 10- to 12-hours shifts, and the employer does not have to pay overtime provided the nurse has not worked more than 40 hours in a work week. The employer still must pay time-and-half overtime if the 40-cap hours is exceeded, as well as double-pay if a nurse works more than 12 hours in a given shift.

No Mandatory Overtime Except in “Emergency Situations”

Under California law, a health care employer cannot force a nurse to work overtime hours in most circumstances. There is a critical exception for “emergency situations,” such as natural disasters or other scenarios were a government disaster declaration is in effect. Otherwise, nurses are free to volunteer to work overtime hours if they wish.

That said, a health care employer is not allowed to use overtime as a scheduling tool or as a substitute for properly staffing a facility. Nor can an employer fire or take any disciplinary action against a nurse who refuses to work overtime. And even in an emergency situation, a nurse cannot be forced to work more than 72 hours in a given work week.

Many nurses are also represented by unions, which have collective bargaining agreements that may specify the circumstances under which a nurse can be required to work overtime.

If you have any concerns about how such agreements might affect your rights as a nurse, or you simply have questions about overtime laws for nurses in California, you should consult with a qualified California employment law attorney.


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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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