In the Trenches: Acme learns about the emotional cost of overtime

Acme learns a lesson about forced labor, its on-call policies and the emotional cost of overtime. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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The round-the-clock, full-capacity operation at the local Acme plant employed a full complement of day-shift workers. Weekends and holidays were a different story. Except for those involved directly in production, the facility was decidedly understaffed. The offices were empty, as was the maintenance department. Acme could function this way because it relied on the power of modern communication technology to keep things humming along.

Acme’s HR department always informed potential mechanics and technicians, who were hourly nonexempt employees that, if hired, they be on call for one-week periods in accordance with a rotating schedule established at the beginning of the year. Also, the mechanics and technicians were informed that they were expected to work overtime as required by the production operation.

At 4:30 p.m., the day-shift mechanics and technicians went off duty, perhaps to head home for dinner, run errands or socialize with friends. Whatever they did, however, Acme demanded that the two scheduled on-call mechanics and two instrument technicians carry paging devices and stay within paging range. Should the on-duty production crew be unable to cope with some situation, the on-duty team leader, the person responsible for that shift’s production output and maintenance, paged one of the scheduled off-duty workers. When paged, they were expected to call the on-duty team leader as soon as possible and try to resolve the problem over the phone. Continuous production with minimum fuss, after all, was one key to being competitive in the marketplace, a situation that kept Acme employees on the payroll.

If the on-call worker either didn’t respond or couldn’t be located, the team leader called the backup person listed on the schedule. Failure of a pager-carrying person to respond to the summons could involve disciplinary measures.

The phone calls, generally lasting less than 30 minutes, involved the team leader answering diagnostic questions the mechanic or technician posed in an attempt to make things right again without having to report to the plant. Sometimes, a resolution required several calls to allow the team leader to implement suggested fixes and provide feedback to the off-duty person. If the problem couldn’t be resolved remotely, the mechanic or technician, at the team leader’s discretion, was required to drop what they were doing and return to the plant to get production up and running again.

If called to the plant, the mechanic or technician received a minimum of three hours of overtime pay, no matter how rapidly they resolved the problem. If it took longer, they were paid overtime rates for the interval between punching in and punching out once they resolved the problem.

The ever-present possibility that the phone would ring at an inconvenient time kept the on-call mechanics and technicians edgy. Sometimes, they were paged while at church, while sitting in a night class at the local college, or while taking a sick child to the emergency room. Sometimes the team leader needed to page the mechanic or technician to resolve as many as four separate problems in a given week. That uncertainty induced an underlying stress in the on-call labor pool, and the resulting mental and emotional tension sometimes carried over into their personal lives and affected their domestic tranquility.

The mechanics and technicians acknowledged that the plant had to be kept operational — it was the source of their bread and butter. But, they wanted to be compensated for the disruptive uncertainty that being on call added to their personal and family lives. So, they filed a class-action lawsuit in which they argued that they were technically on duty, at overtime rates, from the moment they answered the first phone call until they hung up from the last call that confirmed the problem was resolved. Also, they demanded overtime rates for any off-hours travel time to and from the plant to resolve the production problem.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should overtime be mandatory? Would it be better to have a voluntary overtime system solely for those who really need the extra cash? Is it fair to impose punitive measures on those who can’t respond to the initial page? Does it make more sense to rework the schedule to have one mechanic and one technician working the second and third shifts on a straight-time basis? Do the employees have the right to complain when they were informed about this job requirement before they were hired?

An academician says:

A couple a weeks ago, I received a call from a veterinarian complaining that he was on call every third weekend for emergencies and thought this was getting to be a bit much. “Am I entitled to overtime pay?” he asked me. No such luck, because he was a salaried employee of the clinic and his contract clearly stated that he would rotate on-call weekends with the other professional staff. That is true of most administrative and professional personnel. For example, in some companies managers fully expect to work weekends, emergencies or no emergencies. And, there is no such thing as overtime pay.

Hourly employees are different because they are covered by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. On-call hourly employees (assuming that they have already worked a full shift) usually are entitled to overtime compensation, probably time and a half, but only for the hours that they’re actually working when on call. And travel time to and from work isn’t compensated. So, if I am on call all weekend, but only actually work one hour, I’m only entitled to one hour’s worth of pay, and am not compensated for my time spent going back and forth to the plant.

The exception is when employees’ normal activity is severely restricted while being on call. For example, if the employees are required to be on-site in the evening, or for the weekend, then they obviously can’t do any shopping, or go to church, party at the local bars or even go fishing at the local river. In this example, their activities are severely restricted, and they’re eligible for compensation for all hours for which they are on call, not just those hours that they are performing actual work.

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