Can I be fired for refusing to work on a scheduled day off?

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We’d all like to think that we have some say at work—ideally, that we and our employers are essentially in a partnership, working together for mutual benefit. Of course, we’d also all like to think that life is fair and virtue is rewarded, but we know that’s often not the case. Similarly, we generally don’t have a say at work, unless the employer chooses of its free will to give us one.

Employment in the United States is “employment at will.” The most dramatic consequence of that is that, with very few exceptions, an employer may fire an employee at any time, for any reason. But there are other implications of employment at will, too. One of them is that the employer, not the employee, sets the schedule at work; your employer can tell you when to work, and can change your schedule at will, without prior notice. (This is a logical consequence of employment at will: if the employer has the power to terminate you at will, it could clearly tell you when to come into work.)

Regardless of your usual schedule, when you work is 100% up to the employer. The employer can require you to come in early, to stay late, or to work on what is supposed to be your day off. If you don’t work when your employer says you must, you may be terminated. Worse, you could be terminated “for cause.” A for-cause termination is when the employee does “something”, other than just generally mediocre or even poor performance, which “something” is considered a good cause for termination. More dramatic examples include theft or assault at work or stealing, but less dramatic examples include insubordination and violating your manager’s instructions. Refusing to work when your employer tells you—including working on your day off—would be both insubordination and violating employer instructions, and so would potentially constitute good cause for termination. The fallout from your refusal is that if your employer chose to treat this as a for-cause termination, you would not be eligible for unemployment benefits.  For-cause termination deprives you of unemployment.

If you have an actual written employment contract setting out your days off, that would be different: a contract is binding on both employer and employee and is enforceable against both. Your employer cannot make you work on a day contractually guaranteed to be your day off.

Also, U.S. law requires a “reasonable accommodation” to employee religious practices. If you have the day off to attend worship services or because your faith doesn’t let you work that day, the employer cannot require you to work then, or punish you for refusing to work. (If they do, contact an employment law attorney.) But it has to be a sincerely held religious belief, and the day off must be for religious observances or services.

Written employment contracts and religion are the only reasons the employer could not require you to work on your day off—and fire you if you don’t. There is some good news, though, at least for hourly employees. You have to be paid for all hours worked, so you’ll be paid for working on your day off. And if you are a non-exempt employee (that is, eligible for overtime), if working on your day off pushes you over 40 hours for the week, you will get overtime.

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