Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

DEAR CARRIE: I am employed at a Long Island company that has grown from about 60 employees to more than 250. Recently, the company asked exempt employees, including myself, to “volunteer” in our operations center to support the hourly, or nonexempt, employees who work there. We are expected to participate. When we volunteer for a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, we are compensated with a $250 gift card, which doesn’t even come close to what we should earn for that extra time. We are also being asked to work 12-hour shifts in another department, with no additional compensation. What makes all this hard to take is that the company recently cut back on overtime for nonexempt employees, and we salaried workers have been forced to pick up the slack. Is this legal? — Two Hats Legal?

DEAR TWO HATS: Sounds like a sneaky way to save money. But whether your company’s strategy for stretching its staff is legal depends on how much of the hourly employees’ work you and your exempt colleagues regularly perform.

“It is OK to assign exempt employees to nonexempt duties, as long as their job consists primarily of exempt duties,” said employment lawyer Richard Kass, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Manhattan. “So if the reader’s regular duties are 100 percent exempt, then she would probably still be considered exempt even if the volunteer work were recognized as really being mandatory.”

As long as you qualify as being an exempt worker, your employer doesn’t have to pay you and your exempt colleagues for any extra time that you work. By contrast, hourly workers have to be paid for all the time they work and must earn overtime when they work more than 40 hours a week.

But if your volunteer work is piled on top of nonexempt duties you regularly perform, your status could be in jeopardy for your employer.

If you are a manager who also works side-by-side with the employees you manage, and in addition you volunteer for hourly work, a court might conclude that your duties, taken as a whole, mean that you are no longer primarily exempt, Kass said.

“That would mean that the employee would be considered nonexempt, and entitled to time and one-half for work in excess of 40 hours per week,” he said.

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As for those gift cards, Kass says they are a no-no for compensation.

“Regardless of whether the reader is legitimately classified as exempt, an employer cannot compensate employees with gift cards,” he said. “All compensation should be made by check or direct deposit, with the appropriate deductions.”

DEAR CARRIE: I just started a new job, and already there are some red flags. We get paid every Friday, but our employer distributes the checks at the end of the day. So if we have a question about them, no one is around to ask. Doesn’t labor law require owners to hand out checks early enough for employees to cash them on payday? In the past, some people’s checks bounced when they tried to cash them on the same day. What rights do I have here? — Fuzzy Payday

DEAR FUZZY. I have good news and bad. The bad is that state labor laws don’t regulate the time of day an employer issues paychecks, said a spokesman for the state Labor Department.

But the good news is that you can complain about other issues related to your wages. For example, if you and your co-workers are unable to access your wages, or the employer interferes with your accessing your wages in a timely fashion or doesn’t pay your full wages on payday, you can file a complaint with the department, the spokesman said.

To file a complaint or to get more information call 888-4-NYSDOL, or 888-469-7365.