When do bathroom breaks cost an employer $1.75M? When your employer refuses to allow its workers to answer the call of nature – and the Department of Labor hears about it. A Pennsylvania publishing company has been saddled with a potential $1.75 million suit because it mandated that workers clock out while taking minuscule breaks.
All that cash – down the toilet.
Reports USA Today on Jan. 5, via Yahoo News: “American Future Systems, also known as Progressive Business Publications, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by docking its telemarketers’ wages ‘for virtually all time not spent making sales calls, sometimes bringing their wages below the federal minimum wage,’ the Department of Labor said.”
Essentially, the company, based near Philadelphia, made its employees come off the clock for any and all time they spent not making outbound dialer calls – including stretching their legs, getting water, making copies… and even for routine bathroom breaks. By doing so, some of the workers’ wages actually fell under the federal minimum wage floor, despite the fact the employees were full-time workers.
“No worker should have to face the choice: Do I take a bathroom break, or do I get paid?” commented Adam Welsh, an attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Philadelphia office.
The lawsuit, filed in 2012 against the company, includes back pay and punitive damages for roughly 6,000 current and former employees who were working at 14 regional call centers located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio between July 2009 and July 2013.
Adds USA Today: “The company issued the written policy in July 2009, saying that workers could take breaks ‘at any time’ but those breaks wouldn’t be paid. It had argued that federal law didn’t require it to pay employees for short breaks because employees were completely relieved from duty and could do what they wanted during that time.”
The Fair Labor Standards Act does not mandate that employers pay workers for small, occasional breaks.
“However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5-to-20 minutes), the law considers the breaks compensable work hours that must be included in the sum of hours for the work week and considered in determining overtime,” the DOL said in its report.
The president of American Future Systems, Edward Satell, said he will appeal the DOL decision. Satell called the company’s policy of making its worker clock out “generous,” and said if they are forced to pay nearly two million in damages, they will discontinue the policy.
“Our company has a liberal break policy of allowing our telemarketers to choose unpaid breaks anytime, for any reason, for as long as they want,” Satell said Tuesday. “This flex work policy was greatly valued by many of our employees to handle their personal needs.”
According to Philly.com, U.S. District Judge L. Felipe Restrepo has given American Future Systems until Thursday Jan. 7 “to submit their proposals for how to manage the payment process, including the final tab.”
“These are minimum-wage employees,” said Ivette Vigano, assistant director of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division office in Philadelphia. “It’s a very high turnover because of that. Most of them aren’t kids. They are mature adults. For them not to be able to take a brief break to relieve themselves, to speak bluntly, it’s very sad.”
Regina Asbury worked at the company’s Uniontown office from June 2010 to July 2013. She called her job “stressful and tiring,” made worse by the fact she had to choose between the need to take off her headset and get up – and being paid. “If I experienced a hostile or unpleasant call, I would sometimes take a break so I could continue to maintain a professional and energetic tone.”
Bathrooms breaks though… that’s another story.