Profitable corporations like Verizon and Caterpillar have been lowering labor costs aggressively to boost their profits and stock prices. Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of heavy equipment, recently demanded and won a long-term pay freeze and higher out-of-pocket health care expenses from workers at its Peoria, Illinois plant, and as the possibility of a strike or lockout looms on the horizon, Verizon has stubbornly continued to demand steep concessions from its East Coast workers.
But profitable companies are also looking to lower labor costs in more subtle ways. For example, AT&T Midwest has established lunch break policies that control what its technicians can do during their unpaid lunch breaks.
A group of 11 technicians are challenging these policies in court. They have filed a class action suit charging AT&T Midwest with violating state and federal wage statutes for not paying them during their lunch break even though the company’s policies require and encourage workers to work during their lunch break. The suit also says that the lunch break policies infringe on and restrict what workers can do while on their own time.
The class action suit, which may affect thousands of current and former AT&T Midwest technicians, was filed in federal court on August 10. The plaintiffs are seeking back pay and overtime for unpaid work, liquidated damages, and other relief.
The 11 technicians work at various jobs including construction and engineering, installation and repair of landline equipment, and installation and repair of U-Verse, the company’s cable-television alternative.
Some in each category do cable work underground, which they access through manholes. According to company policy, those working underground must eat at and guard the manhole where they are working during their lunch break.
Those not working underground also have their lunch break tightly restricted. They can only eat lunch after finishing one assignment and travelling to the next, and they can’t deviate more than half of mile from a route determined by the company and monitored by GPS, making it difficult if not impossible to find a place to eat.
Workers can bring a packed lunch, but after finishing it, they can’t engage in personal activity such as reading, using their personal laptops, listening to music, or napping. They also can’t idle their vehicle’s engine to run the heater or air conditions even if the weather is extremely cold or hot.
The suit also alleges that the company’s productivity-based performance ranking system puts pressure on technicians to work through their unpaid lunch break to complete as much work as possible.
In addition to seeking compensation for unpaid work, the suit also seeks to have unpaid work during lunch breaks declared illegal.
It’s hard to imagine that such a fuss could be made out of protecting workers’ lunch breaks, but as more companies expect more work out of fewer employees, the lunch break has become an impediment to making money.
USA Today reports that a survey conducted by Right Management found that only one-third of those surveyed took a lunch break. An astonishing 65 percent ate at their desks or didn’t take a lunch break at all.
Even government workers, according to USA Today are working through lunch.
Christy Morgan, a government clerk, said she often works through her 45-minute lunch break.
“Everybody knows the law about uninterrupted lunch, but that doesn’t happen, at least not in our organization. I get a sandwich, eat it while I’m at my desk and keep working on my computer. It’s not that supervisors don’t let us go out, like somebody’s standing over your desk, but we do what we have to in order to get our work done.”