Is it legal for the dentist to reduce my hours?

July 1, 2020
This hygienist says she would have chosen another profession if she had known how often her hours would be cut. Is it legal for the dentists to reduce her hours?

Dear Dianne,

I worked in a general office for eight years. My hours were always 8 to 5, Monday through Thursday. Then my boss called me into his office to inform me that he was cutting my hours to only Tuesday through Thursday. He said that it was becoming too hard to keep my schedule full. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. He didn’t even apologize. By cutting one of my days, the effect was a 25% pay cut. I am a single mother of one and finances are already tight, so this was devastating.

I found another full-time position in a neighboring town, and it seemed to be working out fine until last week. Once again, I was told my days were being reduced to three because, according to the office administrator, the doctor wants all staff members to work only three days per week. I was also informed that I would not be eligible for benefits, such as paid vacation time, since I will be considered part-time. So, not only are my hours being cut, but my benefits are being taken away as well.

If I’d had any idea that finding steady, full-time work would be this hard, I would have chosen another profession. I like being a dental hygienist, but I do not like this recurring nightmare of having my hours cut. I’d like to know if cutting my hours like this is even legal.

Alice, RDH

Dear Alice,

In your first employment situation, it would appear that the business was in decline, especially as you had an eight-year history there. You didn’t mention how much downtime you were experiencing, but it is obvious to me that if your schedule stayed busy, it would be foolish to reduce your hours.

As a consultant, it’s a huge red flag when a doctor relates the need to reduce hygiene capacity because it points to a practice in decline. The owner needs to address what is causing the decline. Has the area become saturated with dentists? Are systems at the business desk functioning to their best capacity? Is someone actively working the unscheduled recare list to get patients scheduled for preventive care? Is there a solid marketing plan in place to bring in new patients? Is there a plan for reactivating patients who have not visited the practice in two years or longer?

In your second employment situation, it would appear that the owner is looking for ways to cut staffing costs by moving all staff members to part-time status. However, if the practice is not in decline, it seems foolish to me to reduce productive hours only to save on benefits. It reminds me of the phrase, “Stepping over dollars to pick up dimes.” The owner may find an increase in staff turnover as disgruntled staff members leave and go elsewhere in order to find full-time work. Dentistry is stressful enough as it is, and staff member turnover can increase stress exponentially. Dental practices have to compete with other dental practices and also private industry to hire and retain high-quality people. Word has a way of getting around when an office doesn’t treat its staff members with consideration and respect, and a bad reputation is very hard to overcome.

Unfortunately, the only time that permanently reducing staff hours is considered illegal is if you have an employment contract that states the number of hours you will be working. It is not common today for hygienists to work under a written contract.

A significant number of dental hygienists have reported having their hours reduced by being told to clock out when they don’t have a patient in their chair. This policy is most likely illegal, and human resources experts Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg explain why.

“The government is clear that under certain circumstances some waiting time must be paid. Therefore, a policy requiring employees to clock out could be noncompliant. Like so many things, the ability to force someone to clock out is driven on a case-by-case basis; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.”1

The US Department of Labor (DOL) describes two categories of waiting: (1) engaged to wait (which is work time), and (2) waiting to be engaged (which is not considered work time). Examples of being engaged to wait provided by the DOL include:

  • “A receptionist who reads a book while waiting for customers or telephone calls;
  • A messenger who works a crossword puzzle while awaiting assignments;
  • A firefighter who plays checkers while waiting for alarms.”2

In each of these situations, the employee is engaged to wait, and the time is hours worked. Waiting is an essential part of the job. When a patient is scheduled and does not show up or cancels at the last minute, the hygienist is engaged to wait. According to Boartfield and Twigg, “The time is hours worked even though your employee is allowed to leave the premises or the job site during such periods of inactivity. The period during which the inactivity occurs is unpredictable and usually of short duration. In either event, your employee is unable to use the time effectively for his or her own purposes. Your employee’s time belongs to and is controlled by you, the employer.”1

Waiting to be engaged is off-duty time. The DOL clarifies certain conditions:

  • “Your employee is completely relieved from duty;
  • The periods of time are long enough to enable your employee to use the time effectively for his or her own purposes;
  • Your employee is definitely told in advance that he or she may leave the job; and
  • Your employee is advised of the time that he or she is required to return to work.”2

All of the above requirements must be met, or the employee is working while waiting. Whether the time is long enough to enable your employee to use the time effectively for his or her own purpose depends on all of the facts and circumstances of the case.

Finally, in some areas of the country hygienists are reporting great difficulty finding full-time work, with the primary reason being too many available hygienists for the number of jobs. Some hygienists are finding it necessary to work two part-time jobs. In my opinion, steps should be taken to open more employment opportunities for hygienists, such as nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and schools, by modifying restrictive supervision rules across the country. The dental need is great, and dental hygienists are well-equipped to fill the gap.

All the best,



1. Boartfield R, Twigg T. Caution: Think before you make your employees clock out. Dental Economics. Published March 1, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2020.

2. eLaws-FLSA Hours Worked Advisor. Department of Labor. Accessed March 1, 2020.

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, MBA, RDH, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical analysis and teleconsulting. Visit For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact her at [email protected] or call (336) 472-3515.