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Labor Disputes Reach The Contact Center
Pending lawsuits filed against AT&T and other companies over unpaid contact center wages could change the traditional value model.
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The issues over payment and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law governing proper compensation, are no longer restricted to the Wal-Marts of the world. Now, contact center agents are joining the litigation fray: This past January, AT&T was hit with a wage suit by some of its contact center workers over alleged FLSA violations. The suit alleges that AT&T required agents to perform unpaid work before and after each work shift, including booting up computers, starting several software programs, and performing customer call-backs. According to the suit, those activities required work of approximately 30 minutes per day per person. Though the suit doesn't specify a dollar amount, the plaintiffs are asking for unpaid wages going back two to three years, the maximum allowed by the statute of limitations. And that's not the AT&T family's only concern -- a similar case is pending against AT&T subsidiary Southwestern Bell in a Kansas federal court. "Call center employees from a number of locations, in a number of states, appear to have been denied wages and overtime for work performed before and after their shifts and during meal and rest breaks," says David Schlesinger, an attorney for the plaintiffs. (An AT&T spokesperson declined to comment for this article, citing a corporate policy covering pending litigation.) Penny Reynolds, senior partner at The Call Center School, a Tennessee-based contact center training company, believes there has been a definitive switch in how most contact centers have workers log in. "Years ago in the call center, employees would come in and clock in, at a traditional time clock. Then they'd go get their coffee and start taking calls," she recalls. "It was viewed as lost time, so to speak, in the call center because it might take 10, 15, 20 minutes to do all that." Consequently, many contact centers started forcing agents to log in directly to the Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), with the ACD serving as the time clock. That way, Reynolds says, contact centers would not pay employees until they were logged in and ready to take calls.
Reynolds says the number of unpaid minutes cited in the AT&T lawsuit is excessive -- she explains it generally takes between five minutes and 10 minutes to log in and open up all relevant applications. She also believes these lawsuits could be a slippery slope for relations between employees and supervisors. "Most call centers feel this [log-in time] is more than balanced by the fact that agents take extra break time or go into 'unavailable' states on the phone during times for which they're on the clock, and [are] being paid when they are not working," she explains. Reynolds says she doesn't think contact centers will go so far as to reintroduce time clocks independent from ACDs, but she offers a solution to the entire issue of payment for log-in/log-out periods: Agents can log into the ACD's time-clock function and immediately list themselves as "unavailable." They can take five to 10 minutes to get ready and then switch their status to "available." The question of how to pay contact center agents will not die with the AT&T suit, however. Lawsuits alleging FLSA violations regarding payment of contact center workers have also landed at the doorsteps of other large companies, including Qwest, Dell, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase. If these lawsuits move toward a monetary settlement, the payout could be immense. "There are sizeable implications when you're talking about 30 minutes per day, per employee," Reynolds explains. "It's nothing to be sneezed at. You're really going to see a lot of call centers rethink their log-in procedures and rules to make sure that they're not potentially liable."
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