One question that comes up with some regularity is, “How many hours does an employee have to work to be a full-time employee?” Unfortunately, the answer to the question is, “It depends.” Full-time employment is a term with many different definitions, each depending on both the factual and legal context in which it is used. Below we discuss various situations in which the term “full-time employee” may be used and what it may mean in each situation.
Employer-defined full-time employees
In a large number of instances when the questions about full-time is asked, the person asking wants to know if an employer is legally obligated to provide some kind of fringe benefit, such as health insurance, vacation leave, sick leave, retirement benefit, etc. Frequently, employers only offer such benefits to full-time employees, and employees who do not qualify for the fringe benefits want to make sure their employers are not unfairly denying them those benefits.
In most situations where the employer voluntarily provides fringe benefits, the definition of full-time employee is determined at the sole discretion of the employer, and employees who do not meet the employer’s definition of full-time employee will not have a legal claim to receive the benefits. Therefore, if an employer says that an employee must work at least 32 hours per week to qualify as a full-time employee and receive fringe benefits, then a full-time employee for that employer is an employee who works at least 32 hours per week. For purposes of voluntary fringe benefits, the employer determines when an employee is full-time and when they are not.
The reason why employers are given this leeway in determining how many hours constitutes full-time for purposes of voluntary fringe benefits is because employers are not obligate to provide them to any employee, whether the employee is full or part-time. Employers are generally not required to provide employees retirement benefits, paid vacation, sick, holiday, or personal leave, or other similar benefits (see US DOL: Wage and Hour FAQ). Thus, when employers choose to provide such fringe benefits, they also get to choose how many hours an employee must work in a week, or other designated period of time, before they become eligible for those benefits. Moreover, employers may set different hour thresholds for different levels of benefits, granting partial benefits to “part-time” employees while granting greater benefits to “full-time” employees.
Full-time employees, laws, and minimum hours worked requirements
There are some laws that require employers to provide benefits to employees. Typically, these laws require employees to work a minimum number of hours before they become eligible for the legally-required benefit, although the term full-time is not always used to describe those employees that qualify for the benefits. Moreover, laws may have different minimum work hour requirements before an employees is eligible for coverage. Three examples of these types of laws are the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Affordable Care Act.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and similar state laws, are largely responsible for creating the notion that an employee who works 40 hours per week is a full-time employee. This notion stems from the fact that employees, unless otherwise exempt, must be paid overtime for all hours they work in excess of 40 in a workweek. The fact of the matter is that, although the FLSA sets the minimum threshold for overtime, employers may offer more generous overtime benefits, such as overtime after 32 hours. Thus, employers voluntarily shift the concept of full-time employee to a lower threshold than 40 hours per week for the purposes of overtime and their FLSA compliance.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave due to their own or a close family member’s serious health condition. In order to qualify for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for the employer at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months immediately before the date the FMLA leave begins. This 1,250 hour annual requirement breaks down to be approximately 24 hours per week. Thus, it could be said, that full-time employment for purposes of the FMLA is at least 24 hours per week, although the term “eligible employee,” not full-time employee, is used to describe employees who meet FMLA’s minimum hours threshold.
Unlike the FMLA, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, actually uses the term “full-time employee” to differentiate between those employees who qualify for its coverage and those that don’t. Under the Affordable Care Act, a full-time employee is defined as an employee who works on average 30 or more hours per week .
As can be seen, there is not a universally recognized number of hours that qualifies an employee as a full-time employee, even when the government mandates employers provide benefits to their employees. In most instances, employers determine how many hours an employee must work in a week, or other designated time frame, to qualify as a full-time employee and thus full-time employee benefits. Moreover, even when employers are legally obligated to provide benefits to employees, the number of hours employees must work to qualify for those benefits differs from law to law. Thus, the answer to the question of, “How many hours must an employee work to be full-time?” is, for good or for bad, “It depends.”