Back overtime pay for long-time worker? Acme could have a problem on its hands

After decades on the job, an Acme maintenance worker disagrees with a company policy and demands back overtime pay.

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The managers at the local Acme plant pride themselves for several good reasons: First, the plant has remained non-union and, second, they know how to run a tight ship. A particular company policy requires plant employees to be at their work stations ready to begin laboring before the whistle sounds. Violations of this rule result in write-ups that fly into employees’ personnel files and are hauled out again only when it is time for performance and salary reviews.

Collecting two or more such violations -- even one if a worker has a history of tardiness -- results in a reduction in the standard raise the company gives at year-end. Because even a nickel decrease in hourly rate translates to a $100 annual loss for every year a worker stays with Acme, the policy is certainly effective at keeping the workforce ready to go when the whistle announces the start of the shift.

For its part, Acme does all it can to ensure compliance with its policy. The daily schedule allocates 10 minutes for normal shift changes. Each department has at least one time clock to ensure nobody in the plant is more than a one-minute walk from a place to punch in. Larger departments have two or more time clocks to eliminate long lines. A bell sounds five minutes before the start of each shift to let employees know they’d better hustle it up, punch in and get to their stations. These measures are perfectly adequate for the production departments, but cause difficulty for those in maintenance.

Everyone in the maintenance department is required to wear coveralls, safety glasses, safety shoes and other gear appropriate for their tasks. Acme provides the coveralls and subsidizes half the cost of other safety equipment. The company constructed a dressing room with lockers inside the maintenance shop, but many of the maintenance workers had problems getting from the clock to the dressing room while hurrying to get in a complete clothing change in the allotted five minutes. Write-ups and minimal raises were common in this department. Some of the crew complained about the policy, but the Acme company line is that it’s a fair policy because it’s enforced uniformly across the entire plant, including the executive offices.

More than one newly hired maintenance worker was shocked to learn of the policy. Many informed their new supervisors that, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), workers should be using paid time to change clothes at both the start and end of their shifts. Acme managers dismissed that notion with various reasons such as, "Our policy is grandfathered in," or, "That doesn't apply in this case."

Then, seven years ago, Acme changed its policy concerning the requirement for its employees to change in the dressing room. Now, workers were told they should take a pair of clean coveralls home each day so they could come to work ready to roll. Only about half the people on each shift complied. Those holding the nastiest, dirtiest jobs and the machinists, whose clothing and shoes were permanently infused with a rich array of lubes and metal shavings, refused to enter their cars or homes wearing such filthy clothing. The occasional tardiness and write-ups continued.

Five years ago, Acme’s West Coast corporate headquarters informed all its plants that it will be implementing a new, company-wide discipline policy instead of letting each plant establish its operational rules. Under the unified plan, certain offenses, such as being tardy, were counted as incidents. A person collecting three incidents would merit a write-up, and collecting three write-ups earned a person something called a consequence, which translated, as always, to withholding part of a regularly scheduled raise. Everyone in maintenance welcomed the news. Even the worst offender was never late often enough to merit a consequence.

With this outside interference, managers at the local Acme plant feared their tight ship might spring a few leaks. In response, they took additional steps to keep the maintenance people on their collective steel toes. Within a minute of the whistle blowing, the lead maintenance man on the shift would be shouting at anyone still in the dressing room to "Get your tails out there and get to work." The technicians considered this unnecessary, annoying and degrading. But no one said anything until Long Tam retired.

Long Tam had joined the company three decades ago as a refugee who had no skills and spoke very little English. He was put in the maintenance department as a grease monkey. Every day he lubed and oiled, and swept floors. Every dirty job that came along found its way to his work schedule. He never complained, even though after years became fluent in the language of his adopted country. He also learned about the machines he was greasing and, when given a chance to help out, proved to be a natural mechanic. He worked his way into the department’s mechanical section. After a few years of diligent effort, Tam qualified as a master mechanic. For three decades, he worked in every maintenance function, finishing up as the plant's top machinist. He was popular with the employees in the operating departments and with management, too. He was the perfect employee who now was eligible for retirement.

On his last day, Acme bought donuts and soda pop and allowed Tam's shift to stop working 10 minutes early to give them time to hold a farewell party. Maintenance workers from other shifts attended; most had worked with Tam at one time or another. There were a lot of handshakes, back slapping and droning oration from the plant manager – thankfully, it was brief. The crowd called Tam to the spotlight with shouts of, "Speech! Speech!"

Tam thanked everyone for helping him throughout his many working years. He said he liked the people with whom he had worked. He liked the work. He was thankful for the opportunity he had been given to better himself and that, for the most part, he had been treated fairly. But, there was one thing that had always bothered him. Although he never mentioned it before, he had always felt that, with respect to the dressing issue, Acme treated him and his coworkers like children. Tam said that for the sake of his job, he had never spoken out. But now, he could state his belief that Acme, by issuing write-ups and condoning harassment from the lead men, had demonstrated that the company requires workers to be dressed before the whistle sounded. Therefore, he argued, Acme should pay employees for that time in accordance with the FLSA. Tam said that soon he was planning to file a complaint and attempt to recover 10 minutes overtime pay for every day he had worked at the company. During his tenure, he said, this represented 1,300 hours of time-and-a-half pay.

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