Make On-Call Scheduling for Restaurants Better for Your Team

Make On-Call Scheduling for Restaurants Better for Your Team
AJ Beltis

By AJ Beltis

In many restaurants, on-call scheduling is inescapable. It's a saving grace when things get unexpectedly busy or when a team member calls in sick at the last minute.

However, when mismanaged, on-call scheduling can frustrate staff, throw off their work-life balance, and impact financial security.

On-call scheduling needs to be handled in a way that respects employees' time but never leaves the restaurant short-staffed. It's a hard balance to strike, so to help you set it up right, we've outlined everything you need to know about on-call scheduling in your restaurant.

What is On-Call Scheduling?

In a restaurant, on-call scheduling is when employees are scheduled for a shift that they may be responsible for working. Typically, the restaurant will notify on-call employees within 24 hours to let them know if they are expected to show up and work their shift.

For example, let's say a server has an on-call shift starting Friday at 4 PM, and the restaurant has a policy where on-call employees need to call between one and two hours ahead of time. This server calls her manager on Friday at 2:30 PM, when she is notified that she is indeed expected to show up for her 4 PM shift. The server then shows up to work as if it were any other scheduled shift.

On-call scheduling is popular in restaurants due to fluctuations in busyness, weather, and the attendance of other employees. With on-call scheduling, restaurants finalize a schedule based on immediate factors to ensure maximum efficiency.

Types of Restaurant On-Call Scheduling Formats

Below are some ways a restaurant might go about scheduling on-call employees. Your restaurant can adopt any or all of these formats that work for your staff and your business.

Rotating On-Call Scheduling

With the rotating schedule, managers will periodically swap employee on-call obligations. This could look like some employees having set on-call shifts one month and switching to another set of shifts the next month. Rotations might result from employee availability, evenly distributing less- or more-desirable shifts among the team, or opportunities to cross-train staff.

Only Select Employees Are On-Call

With this format, restaurants select certain employees to be considered for on-call shifts. A situation where this option makes sense is if some employees are adamantly against on-call work, while others are more flexible and open to extra hours. Another situation is if only some positions need an on-call option — particularly if a restaurant requires someone who is an expert or certified in a specific task working every hour.

Primary vs. Secondary On-Call Scheduling

To give employees a better idea of if they're likely to work or not, this option flags some on-call employees as “primary” and others as “secondary.”

Primary on-call workers would be asked to report to their shift ahead of their secondary counterparts, and their designation as primary or secondary can rotate or be based on tenure in the restaurant. This way, secondary workers can be more liberal with planning their personal lives, but the restaurant can still be covered if it gets busy or the primary employee is a no show.

Weekly Alternating On-Call Scheduling

For restaurants that want to give employees time off from on-call obligations, this option is a great choice. You can impose a rule that employees will not be scheduled for an on-call shift in two consecutive weeks, or that if an employee is scheduled on-call for a weekend one week, they'll only be on-call during weekdays in the subsequent week.

Benefits of On-Call Scheduling

Operators Have Flexibility

Picture a normal day in your dining room when four large parties come in and need to be served. Or, perhaps the weather forecasted thunderstorms in the afternoon, only for an unexpectedly sunny day to turn your patio into the hottest spot in town.

If the restaurant is understaffed it can increase customer wait times and stress out staff—with one quick phone call to an on-call employee, these downsides can be avoided.

Employees Can Pick Up More Shifts

Some employees are eager to jump at the chance for an extra shift or two throughout the week. For those who aren't enthused about the ambiguity that comes with on-call scheduling, most will at least admit the extra income is more than welcome.

On-call shifts are usually best received when they are attached to an established shift. That way, an employee would simply have to come in or stay a few hours beyond their normal shift, rather than potentially waste a day wondering whether they have to work.

Drawbacks of On-Call Scheduling

Difficulties for Employees

Financial gains aside, on-call scheduling can be incredibly frustrating for an employee. Especially so when mismanaged by the restaurant.

Your employees have personal obligations and social lives, and irregular working hours have a direct impact on work-family conflicts. On-call shifts put them in a state of ambiguous limbo where they can't make any plans with certainty due to the possibility of having to cancel — particularly since on-call need can be determined right before the shift starts.

On the other hand, employees planning to work their on-call shift might be put under financial stress if they are not needed after all. Some employees might perceive this action as “unscheduling” them from a shift they were hoping to work and get paid for.

Conflict With Local or State Laws

Depending on the regulations in your jurisdiction, on-call scheduling may be subject to various restrictions, fines, and premium pay to employees.

First and foremost, under the FLSA, restaurants cannot require on-call employees to be at the restaurant and not pay them for their shifts - even if they don't end up doing actual work. Any unreasonable “constraints on the employees freedom” during non-working on-call time may be subject to compensation.

Regionally, there are other restrictions to adhere to. While the majority of cities and states allow on-call scheduling without extra fees, some simply do not. For example, in Oregon, employers must pay an employee one-half of their hourly rate for all scheduled, unworked on-call hours, unless cancelled more than two weeks before the shift. In San Francisco, employers may need to pay employees up to four hours worth of work for unworked on-call shifts.

Other regional laws that might come into play include:

  • Reporting pay, where employees who show up to work and are dismissed before working their full shift are owed a premium.
  • Standby pay, where employees receive pay for any time they may be expected to start work with little or no notice.
  • Fair workweek pay. Since confirmation of on-call shifts usually comes down to the day-of, they can be seen as a violation of fair workweek.

Because there are potential regulations and fines, it's highly recommended that you look into your area's laws or consult with counsel before implementing any on-call scheduling.

Finding On-Call Replacements

It's hard enough to find replacements for regular shifts, but on-call scheduling can complicate the matter further. For example, if an employee offers up a shift to their team, an on-call employee can't take it because they're already on-call for that shift. Plus, employees are averse to picking up or trading for an on-call shift, as there's no guaranteed work waiting for them.

On-Call Scheduling Best Practices

If reviewing this post has given you the confidence that on-call scheduling can benefit your restaurant, here are some best practices to adhere to.

Get Team Buy-In

On-call scheduling won't work unless employees are willing and able to partake in it. Through whatever methods possible, you'll need to get team buy-in to have a workforce of positive, productive on-call employees. Remember, it's important to approach this situation with empathy and respect for employees' personal lives while emphasizing the benefits of more hours and pay.

Look into the "buffer-and-cut" method

If a sizable contingency of employees expresses disinterest in on-call work, it's an opportunity to introduce a buffer-and-cut scheduling protocol.

This model relies on the few employees who are willing to sign up for on-call work. They work directly with managers to be scheduled on shifts where extra help may be needed - thereby adding a buffer of employees. Should the restaurant not be busy, these employees would be cut to ensure tipped employees' shifts are worth working and the restaurant operates more efficiently. This model relies on employee flexibility and is a fair way to get extra shifts in front of those who want or need them.

Remember, local regulations for minimum hours worked and other laws need to be reviewed, before implementing a buffer and cut schedule.

Account for Employee Capabilities

If a cook calls out for a shift at the last minute, the waiter who is scheduled on-call won't be much help, will he?

On-call scheduling must factor in the needs of the restaurant with the roles your staff performs. For example, if your kitchen sees diminishing marginal returns when there are more than six cooks in there, you might not need too many back-of-house employees on-call for a given shift.

However, the same might not be true for servers or delivery drivers, so having a larger bank of on-call employees in these roles may be a necessity. Other factors such as employee expertise or health certifications could also result in some workers more likely to be on-call than others.

Ensure Work-Life Balance and Fairness

Work-life balance keeps employees healthy, motivated, and more likely to stick around - and a mismanaged on-call scheduling program can easily threaten that balance.

On-call scheduling needs to recognize this need and instill fairness in the process. This might look a few different ways in your restaurant, but here are some to consider.

  • Rotate on-call obligations as outlined in the section above. This gives employees extended periods of time without having to worry about on-call work so they can handle personal matters.
  • Consider important factors such as employee tenure and interest in working on-call shifts.
  • Honor employee availability by not assigning an on-call shift to employees who can't work at certain times, like not scheduling the mother who needs to pick up her children from school for on-call afternoon shifts.
  • Rely on sales forecasts to develop more conservative and accurate on-call schedules. This will minimize the potential need for on-call workers.

Help Your Employees

On-call scheduling demands a lot from your employees, so in return, managers should help employees when issues arise.

Calling out of an on-call shift should come with an understandable degree of flexibility - after all, if you're not offering certainty to work this shift to employees, it's conceivable why they can't always offer the same thing.

Granted, availability to work on-call shifts may be a requirement of working in your restaurant, and it's unacceptable when employees constantly shirk that responsibility. Instead, if an on-call employee occasionally has a legitimate conflict, approach the situation with empathy and try to find a solution. After all, it's better to go one shift slightly understaffed than to lose the employee outright.

Check In Often

On-call scheduling is taxing on employees. While they may agree to the structure at first, it's worth periodically checking in on the employees most affected by on-call scheduling to see what their thoughts are. Appropriate actions might include adjusting employees' on-call availability or providing resources to help them manage on-call shifts.

Guarantee Hours

One final tip for successful on-call scheduling involves committing to your on-call employees. Workers don't want to face all the negative aspects of on-call scheduling just to work an hour or two. That's why on-call employees should be given a guaranteed minimum number of hours, beyond the regulations, if called in. This certainty can help staff feel more on-board with this type of scheduling format, since the pay from working would help offset the downsides that come from on-call work.

Implementing an On-Call or Buffer-and-Cut Schedule In Your Restaurant

As you implement an on-call schedule in your restaurant, it's important you have the right software in place to help you build schedules quickly, confirm employee availability, and empower employee communication regarding scheduling. In this section, we'll outline the step-by-step process for developing an on-call or buffer-and-cut schedule using employee scheduling software 7shifts.

1. Confirm Team Availability for On-Call Shifts

With on-call hours, an employee might see an increase in their scheduled hours in a given week — even if all those hours are not ultimately worked. That's why employees should submit their availability for working hours. Those building the schedule will have more labor hours to choose from, making the process much simpler.

If you're approaching scheduling from a buffer-and-cut standpoint, remember to note which employees are willing to be on-call. Employees will feel frustrated if scheduled for an on-call shift after explicitly telling you they would rather not.

Employee availability and time off requests - 7shifts software
7shifts employee availability and time off requests on desktop and mobile

2. Develop the Schedule

Once it's clear who can work when, the next step is to use that information to build a schedule. You can read the process for creating a schedule based on your restaurant's needs, roles, and hours in this article publishing for your team, but restaurant scheduling software comes with features that are simply irreplaceable with traditional methods.

For example, with 7shifts, you can use an auto-scheduler to build a schedule that meets the projected demands for any given shift, thus reducing some of the ambiguity that causes on-call scheduling in the first place. And if you want to be safe, making on-call shifts is as simple as creating a new role in your software, labeling the on-call shift, and assigning it to employees.

on call scheduling with employee scheduling software
7shifts on-call scheduling for restaurant employees

3. Send to the Team

After a schedule has been built, share it with your team as far in advance as possible so they can approach you with any conflicts and work out any shift swaps with their peers. With electronic scheduling, you can publish your schedule and alert employees with the touch of a button.

7shifts mobile app notifications for a new schedule
7shifts mobile app notifications and shift view for a schedule

For on-call employees, sending schedules early is crucial so that they can start planning for times when they know for certain they will and will not be working, making on-call and buffer-and-cut shifts more manageable with their outside-of-work lives.

4. Determine if They Work

On-call scheduling requires trust, attentiveness, and diligent work by both employees and managers. Luckily, there are tools to help your restaurant identify those who excel when it comes to on-call scheduling, as well as quickly identify who might need support with this scheduling model.

You can use 7shifts time clocking software to clock and track employee attendance, generate an employee timesheet for a wages and hours summary to match up scheduled hours with worked hours, and use employee engagement software to see which employees are the most punctual to their assigned shifts.

Employee Shift Feedback from multiple employees
7shifts employee feedback and communication software

Frequently Asked Questions

What are other methods of scheduling?

If on-call scheduling isn't the right fit for your business, there are other methods of shift scheduling to keep your restaurant covered during peak hours. For example, you can look into 24-hour schedules if your restaurant is always open. Alternatively, you can employ a rotating schedule to adjust schedules by the month or season.

Where do I find resources for on-call scheduling laws?

While there are no national on-call scheduling laws, your restaurant may be subject to regional regulations. To find out which laws — if any - apply to your business, simply search for “[your city and/or state]” + “on-call scheduling” laws on Google. Doing so will yield resources that speak to your specific area's laws. You should also consult with your local authority and/or legal counsel to ensure you're getting the most up-to-date information on on-call scheduling.

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AJ Beltis
AJ Beltis

AJ Beltis is a freelance writer with almost a decade of experience in the restaurant industry. He currently works as a content manager at HubSpot, and previously as a blogger at Toast.