An employee usually expects to work a minimum number of shifts per week: A guaranteed number of work hours lets the employee plan financially and decide whether other employment is necessary. In certain situations, however, employers may give shifts away to new employees. This is usually legal, although not desirable from the employee perspective. Employees may have the right to fight for these hours, depending on the circumstances.
The Fair Labor Standards Act is the major federal law regulating workers in the United States, although local and state jurisdictions also have their own regulations. According to this law, as described by the U.S. Department of Labor, there's no distinction between a part-time or full-time employee. The law indicates, however, that nonexempt employees are to receive time-and-a-half pay for all hours that exceed a 40-hour workweek. The Fair Labor Standards Act doesn't address flexible schedules, nor does it discuss job sharing — two situations that sometimes are applicable to changes in shifts.
Employees are typically at-will employees. This means that they can leave or their employer can discharge them at any time. This is usually advantageous because it allows employers to downsize or release problematic employees if necessary, and because employees often find better job opportunities and can leave without repercussions. By contrast, contracted employees have an agreement with the employer, usually written, that stipulates the numbers of hours worked, conditions for shift changes, job duties and pay rates.
Because of the way FLSA is silent on split shifts, flexible schedules, night hours, and even the definition of part and full time, your employer's ability to give shifts away to a new employee depends on whether you're an at-will or contracted employee or if you have a written agreement that details when or how much you're to work. If there's no contract or written agreement, your employer can do what he likes with your hours. You're free to leave the employer if you don't like what the employer is offering, but conversely, the employer also can let you go if you don't accept the shift modifications. If there's a contract or written agreement, however, the employer must honor it and can't change your minimum hours or shift without your consent. The number of shifts the employer can give away depends on the terms of the written agreement or contract.
Even though it's disheartening and often financially difficult for a worker to lose shifts to a new employee, from the employer's perspective, doing this makes business sense because two part-time employees often are cheaper than one full-time employee: Part-time employees don't always receive benefits. Using two part-time employees also means the employer avoids having to pay overtime rates for hours worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
In certain cases, employers give shifts to new employees only temporarily. For instance, they may have a deadline by which new employees have to be trained and therefore need the new employees to cover more shifts for the first few weeks. Thus, it's important to discuss the company's needs and plans with your employer when your shifts are impacted. In certain instances, employers may find ways to offer alternate compensation for lost shifts, such as additional vacation time.
Sometimes an employer gives shifts to a new employee because your own work is lacking. This is a good opportunity to reevaluate your work performance to see if you can improve and get more hours. If you feel that you must leave the employer due to the shift issues, always be professional and communicate openly, as getting a good reference from the employer still matters in seeking new employment.