IT is full of heroics; many of us carry a paging device, like Batman waiting in his cave for the Bat Signal. What's a fair compensation for on-call schedules? Is it acceptable to handle emergency requests on weekends or vacations?

11 Answers 11


Seems like this would depend entirely on the individual and the workplace...

I work at an e-commerce company, and the website needs to be up 24x7, which means someone in the admin group is also on call 24x7. We rotate being on call for a week between 4 people... the number of calls can vary from 0 calls for the week (rare), to getting virtually no sleep for the entire week (also rare). Usually it's a few early AM pages of varying severity, but for that week the on call guy is basically chained to a laptop & sleeps with his cell phone.

Compensation here comes in the form of a flexible work schedule, being able to take personal days as needed, great management & an enjoyable workplace. Personally, I just consider being on call to be a necessary evil that comes with this particular position, and I think the perks are worth the stress. Then again, quite a few would say it's not even close to being worth it.

People's expectations would probably depend on business hours, the importance of the systems to the business, and both tangible & intangible benefits provided by the employer.

  • 1
    wow, impressive. Out of curiosity, how many servers do you support (assuming servers are the majority of your workload)? May 30, 2009 at 1:12
  • 2
    ~300 physical boxes & ~75 VMs last time I counted, but probably only a 1/4 of those are critical systems.
    – gharper
    May 30, 2009 at 16:34

For me, this depends 100% on expectation. If the employer is completely up-front about this, they're going to keep (and deserve to keep) employees. It needs to be brought up during the interview, and if the reality doesn't match up to the picture they painted, you need to document, and bring it to your review. You agreed on a salary based on faith that they fully disclosed the company's demands on your personal time.

You're not going to be able to change business needs. The only real use for this information is as leverage for salary bumps.

Vacation is a different story, in my book. If I have a stand-in, and I've documented properly, there's no excuse for calling me. It's not actually a vacation unless my phone is off. I've helped shape this expectation by bending over backward to keep coworkers from being called on their own vacations.

The real answer is to be 100% clear on what your limits are in the interview. It's ok with me if that costs me a job that would make me unhappy.


IMO, in a larger environment it should be a combination of off-shift staff (typcially entry-level), paid oncall for most technical staff and unpaid oncall for senior technical staff.

That sets up an environment that is healthy:

  • The technical staff needs to document stuff so the off-shift people can take care of routine things
  • The mainstream technical staff is fairly compensated and not getting paged 3 times a week
  • The senior technical staff has a disincentive to hold knowledge too close, as they will be woken up if they do.
  • Three new answers for a fairly old question. Wonder how this came up.
    – jldugger
    Jul 6, 2009 at 4:46
  • Not sure, I didn't look at the date. Someone must have submitted an answer that popped the topic to the top of the list. Jul 6, 2009 at 12:42

One thing that's important to take into account is "on call" v.s. "state of readiness" (call 'em what you will) when considering just compensation.

The way I differentiate between them is basically by figuring out what I'm allowed to do. For me, I feel an added 10-20% salary is fine if I'm expected to carry the pager and handle/redirect any incoming issues.

For the above, I can reasonably expected to be allowed to drink a beer or two, with a on-site time of an hour or two. I.e., be allowed to have a social life.

If I'm expected to be on-site in five minutes, keeping a constant watch on systems (despite having alarmsystems), I'd most likely shoot for 200-300% daily salary, with a one week rotation.

It can be difficult to get the second version approved, and so my favorite is a bit of a hybrid system.

I generally know my systems well enough that problems don't occur, so I'm happy with 10-20% pager bonus, but on the occasions an issue does occur, I want fair compensation i.e., per-ticket compensation.

How much that compensation is is up to you and your boss, obviously, but a few of the "soft" parts of the package I like to include are: * Guaranteed time to FIX the problem v.s. WORKING AROUND IT. * Flex time (while it's true that I'd be compensated for any issues, getting in at 8am or 9am after staying up until 4am is hardly productive).

Another great thing is reviewing cases. Even if it just looks like a one-time issue, other people on your team may very well have useful input, and the review process itself (no, not just a incident report, but an actual honest-to-god face-to-face meeting with your team and your boss) will help you stay proactive rather than reactionary.

A quick example would be noticing that a server had a disk fill up overnight (possibly despite having been 30% free the evening before).

The reactionary thing to do would be to investigate and clean up whatever went wrong, as well as write up an incident report. The proactive thing to do would be to investigate and clean up whatever went wrong, write up the incident report, plan a look-over on the remaining servers, order new hardware etc.

As a sidenote, that last part fits in very well with the "Guaranteed time" I mentioned earlier.


This can vary widely between employers and environments. Where I'm currently at, we're expected to be on call, but only when it is our turn in the rotation. Our work schedule is pretty flexible, so if you're up late the night before because of an issue, you can usually come in late the next day or even work from home. I agree with Kara Marfia that this is something that needs to be agreed upon in advance, and that things should be spelled out pretty plainly, both what they expect and what you expect.

One thing that makes our system a bit better is that we have a Network Operations Center that is staffed with pretty bright people. They can usually resolve issues that are well-documented without needing to page or call.


I would like to think that I am the exception, but my research has shown that there's a decent percentage (~10%) of administrators who are the sole admin in a 24x7x365 computing environment who have >50 servers. (See my research and the results of my 334-admin survey here: http://www.standalone-sysadmin.com/blog/2009/05/happy-1st-blogiversary/)

Essentially, your job as an admin is either to support a 24 hour operation or it isn't. You're hired to be on-call at times, then it's acceptable. If you weren't hired to be on-call and your employer wants to make you on-call, then that needs to be a two way street. You need reimbursed in one way or another for your extra investment in the company. Whether you take that as monetary or temporal is between you and your employer. If they don't want to reimburse you more and you disagree, chances are good that it is an at-will employment.

Ultimately, you must be the final judge of "fair", but reaching a mutually beneficial agreement should definitely be possible.

  • It seems like your survey was inadequately ranged. I don't have access to it, but if 50 percent of your survey sample has 200+ users, you need to broaden the scope a bit. Maybe even ask for a direct estimate, so you can calculate things like users per server. and servers per admin.
    – jldugger
    May 30, 2009 at 4:31
  • I completely agree. I even mentioned that in the blurb on the blog. You can get the raw CSV data here: noneck.net/standalone/raw_results.csv I'd like to do the survey again this year with a little better distinction on the high end. My blog caters to small infrastructure admins. I had no idea that 50% of my readers would admin over 200 machines. Unreal. May 30, 2009 at 5:36

This sounds like a basic economics question to which the answer is "what the market will bear".

Apart from actual monetary compensation I have other expectations if I am on call. For example if I get woken up at 3am and because of that I don't get back to sleep until say 5am, then I don't think it is reasonable for my employee to expect me to be in the office at 9am. I'f I'm up say 3-4 hours or more, don't expect to see me at all the next day unless I need to come in to clean up after the on call incident. And yeah I expect to get paid for that day I don't come into the office.

I also think that if the employer is not willing to make sure you have appropriate road warrior tools (i.e. wireless broadband and a laptop that is portable enough to carry every where) then the on call rate should go up. If on call really means not being able to leave home, then I think it is worth more money.


Federal law has very specific rules about how much a person must be paid for being on call. The first question is whether you are free to do what you would do ordinarily away from work, or whether you have restrictions on your activities and whereabouts. If you cannot go and do as you please because of the conditions necessary for responding to calls, you must be paid for that time. For example, you like to go fishing at a park 25 miles from home. You cannot do that when you are on call, because you have to be able to get to the office within fifteen minutes. This would arguably be time for which you had to be compensated by the hour.

Hourly computer professionals must be paid for every hour they work, but only at straight time if they are "exempt" from wage and hour laws. An increase in salary means either 1) you are salaried exempt, which means you receive a check for your weekly (rate x 40 hours) salary even if you work 35 hours rather than 40. It also means you receive that check if you work 55 hours -- no overtime, no comp time. In the alternative, if you are salaried but not exempt, you must receive overtime for all work over 40 hours in a week. Private employers may not substitute comp time for overtime pay.

Check out the Department of Labor website, subcategory Wages and Hours. You should find a lot of useful information there.


As everyone else has already said - it depends. If it's part of the job, and stated up-front, you have nothing to quibble about.

In my current role I am the entire IT "department". I am not on call. Nor am I expected to provide 24x7 service. However, In the event my services are required out of hours I expect to have to do whatever is needed and this has been factored into my salary. Fortunately, most issues are solved with a phone call or a few minutes connected via the VPN, which is handy because it's a minimum of an hour's drive to the office. There will always be some work that must be performed out of hours (maybe two or three days a year) and for that I receive time off in compensation.


2 person rotation 24x7 365 days. (25 weeks each)(300-500 users) We receive a comparable pay and benefit package as salary. For on-call, we recieve 4 hours of comp time per week. The problem is, HR does not recognize "comp time". If we dont take it and we are laid off or let go, we lose it. The next problem is, in the past year or so, the manager is no longer willing to allow us to use the comp time as freely. I am woke up 3 to 4 out of 7 days. I average a call a night. Most issues are locked accounts or printer issues easily solved by logging in thru the VPN. (for me, any wake up call creates an hour or 2 of up time until i can get back to sleep) Now the manager is threatening to take away comp time all together! Additionally, after being up all night a few weeks ago, (last email was 3:45 am), I was charged comp time when I took the next day off! Myself and the other person are trying to find good solid information on what is "standard" and "acceptable" for on-call compensation. If the rotation were larger, it would not be so bad.


As far as I'm concerned, if you're on call and must be available (which interferes with your "off" time), you should be paid full hourly rate for every hour you are on call. It is so disruptive to your personal life that you should be compensated for contributing to the business and this should be considered overtime. Employers are taking advantage of people and trying to force us all into a 24/7 society and unless the government labor laws protect us, we can only fight for our rights.

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