A new work schedule and the pitfalls of “at-will” employment

Q: In December, our company owner told us there may be changes
in our hours and shifts and that he was “figuring it all out” but that
our preferences would be heard. Each of us met with him and explained
our preferred hours. Last week he sat down with us and told us that as
of February 1st our hours would be changing. I currently work 8am to
5pm, which are what I would like to work. I was told that twice per
week, I would now need to work until 7pm. Is this legal in
Massachusetts? Can an employer just change an employee’s hours to suit
their needs with very little warning?

A: In Massachusetts, most employees are “at-will.” This term means that
an employee is not a member of a union or protected by a collective
bargaining agreement. For non-unionized employees, employers are
permitted to change many of the terms and conditions of an employee’s
position. For example, an employee may be asked to take on a new task.
Or an employer may move from Boston to Needham. A change in hours can be
changed by an employer and it is usually legal. Minors have some
protection against the hours they can work legally but these
restrictions end when an employee turns 18 years old.

I would ask your owner if there is any flexibility in the requirement to
work until 7 p.m. twice per week. Maybe it is just for a short time? Or
maybe another employee would like to take on this schedule? Many of us
are working longer hours, sometimes not by choice. If no alternative
exists, I would try it for a while, if possible. Maybe traffic will be
lighter and your commute might be quicker? If the later shift does not
work for you, you may need to consider other employment options. For
example, if you have a childcare pick up at 5:30 p.m., you may not be
able to try a later schedule.

I probably have not shared the answer you were hoping to receive.
However, it may be worth approaching the business owner, in a respectful
way, to determine if there are any other options available.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.