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Ask HN: Is on-call outside of work hours is a form of exploitation of labor?
7 points by ahreftag 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 9 comments

Only if you are not appropriately paid or otherwise reimbursed for that work.

I worked for two different systems integrators and in both cases on-call work was part of the contract. However, in both cases I got pro-rata time off. So I ended up working about 45-50 hours / week. For some clients I would start at 4am and finish by noon. Had the afternoon off to go to the beach, etc.

We also had an on-call mobile that was passed on at the end of each week. That way, emergency work was distributed across all of the team.

> Only if you are not appropriately paid or otherwise reimbursed for that work.

Yup. If you are on call and are expected to be available to work without much predictability or notice then that "option" on your time should be compensated, regardless of whether you are called in to work, in addition to pay for the time when you are actually called in. If being on call is a standard part of the role then maybe this is priced into the base rate / salary.

If you have a job where you have fewer blocks of time outside of work where you can do whatever you like (eg going camping for days without phone contact) then all things being equal that job should compensate you more for placing more constraints on your time than some other job where you aren't on call.

At first thought I'd say "no" because it's often written directly in the contract. IANAL so I can't tell you if the FTE contracts as they're written now are enforcable/invalid/afoul of labor laws, but that would probably vary by state and by country anway.

IMO it's just that us (tech workers/software engineers/whatever) are so dumb that when companies started putting these kinds of clauses, we didn't act for raises or unionize, we just took it as part of the job, and that became the status quo.

Do the 70K-200K salaries (which is the vast majority of where I see most software developers) that software developers make have round-the-clock (on certain days) maintenance priced in? I don't think so. I think companies are just running away with that additional value because there's no way for a single worker to effectively push back. If you decide to not work outside of working hours (which is absolutely reasonable), all the other lemmings on your team/in your company would probably resent you for increasing their workload (rather than realizing maybe it shouldn't be theirs at all, or that they should be getting paid more to do it), and tbh you probalby wouldn't have gotten hired in the first place.

I would take exception to being called "dumb". If you can make sense of API documentation, then reading a contract is not too much of a challenge.

Unfortunately, there are some people who are so keen to be a programmer that they will jump in without taking due care. As for bosses, you can push back. If you work with lemmings, then it might be time to find a job where your co-workers are not lemmings and the bosses are not PHBs.

Well you maybe shouldn't -- I was referring to developers being collectively too dumb to unionize (which is basically the logical conclusion, asking for a raise that reflects the amount of extra work you'd be putting in would likely make the offer untenable and the company would move on). I worded it badly -- reading the contract isn't the hard part, avoiding a pattern of encroaching explolitation was the dumb move, considering most people consider tech to be filled with people who might be more intelligent than average.

You can't push back once you've accepted a contract that includes that language, the only place to push back is before accepting it. I'm of the opinion that just about everyone is a lemming in one shape or form -- I no longer work for a small/midsize/large corporation with these sorts of rules, but I found that while I did, not many people gave it much thought, but a very small minority gave it A LOT of thought. It's anecdotal, but the minority I've witnessed that actually cares to think about this is too small.

I certainly don't feel exploited for doing on-call rotations.

It's always mentioned up front at interviews so I don't feel ambushed and most the time all it amounts to is I carry my laptop with me. Maybe I'm lucky but of the over 2k hours on call I had logged at my last job I got paged for something that took more than 5 minutes to resolve. It's just part of the job IMO.

We work on systems that don't close down at the end of the day. I've had jobs in the past that were also open 24/7. We weren't on call but should someone have called in sick for a shift we were expected to answer our phone and come in to work to cover a shift. That was a union job and it's pay and benefits were no where near what I have now (they weren't bad either). They were never going to reimburse me to go to a conference or have my lunch catered everyday like I can get now.

So no, I don't feel exploited. We are white collar workers with pretty cushy jobs (at least most engineers I know, YMMV). It just so happens that occasionally we may have to save the day when the code WE wrote does something it's not supposed to. For all the upsides working in this industry has, this downside is pretty insignificant IMO.

But hey, don't wanna get paged? Write better code :-p

Devils advocate:

Are you sure you're not just used to being exploited? You are, in absolute terms, expending more effort to support these systems "that don't close down", and the question is whether that increase in revenue (indirectly attributable to value you're providing) is being reflected in your pay.

While I agree people in tech have it very good compared to the general populace, having a job that is nicer than most isn't a good excuse for not thinking critically about whether you're being asked for more value than you're being properly compensated for. I have no idea how to quantify the 8 hour work day in terms of output, but it should be fairly unassailable that more hours = more work (should) = more pay.

How about thinking about it this way -- has pay risen (in real terms) significantly since the start of on-call rotations? What happened to the spot for operations people in other disciplines, who normally night shifts and make sure things are running well when the other half of the company is asleep? I think the obvious answer to this question is that you are that ops person now, and you're certainly not getting paid double.

Having worked for a few places with on-call clauses in contracts, I'm inclined to say yes.

There are companies that handle on-call work really well. They'll pay a person over their usual hour rate for nights on-call, and they will reimburse them with time spent, so that if you are forced awake in the morning, you get that time off from normal hours. Good companies also allow employees to opt-out, because typically a call from the on-call phone is waking up more than one person in a family - it's this reason why I no longer choose to do on-call work.

In my experience, there are a lot of companies that abuse on-call work, especially in agencies. In the last five years, I've seen:

* Contracts where a person is only paid for being on-call if something goes wrong

* Verbal contracts where people have been asked to go on-call for below minimum wage - £10 a call, regardless of time spent.

* Tracking set up against alerts and how long it has taken the developer to react to said alert, with employees being punished for not being online within minutes.

* Developers being lumped with unsociable rotas - one dev I used to work with was a bit of a doormat, and he signed up to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday on-call. He eventually did every day on call because every developers dropped out.

* On-call work paid for with gift vouchers (i.e. if you're buzzed and you fix the issue, I'll give you a £20 Tesco gift voucher).

* Delayed alarms set up to wake up managers if a developer hasn't reported a fix within a given time. It sounds okay, because a lot of the time the manager can help, but it was used as a way to punish developers for not fixing things quick enough.

* Developers punished for being tired/ill, after working all night on call supporting a project, and then being told to come in to work for a day of meetings.

These have happened at companies I've worked at, and at companies my friends have worked at. These aren't small companies either. Some of these are at large companies/agencies, many of which you may have heard of.

As a concept, it's a critical business need that needs to be addressed, but without considered protection I'm inclined to see it as an opportunity to poke for red flags, rather than a sign of business being done right.

When I was on-call I didn’t get any kind of bonus, but any significant amount of time spent working outside of work hours my boss let me take out of normal work time.

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