The myth about sleeping on the job

The myth about sleeping on the job

24-Hour Shift Workers Entitled to Pay for All Hours Under the Employer’s Control

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By Hina B. Shah

When a receptionist has some down time at work, she surfs the internet or flips through a magazine.  Her employer still pays her for this time because she’s required to respond to calls or visitors.  It is a benefit to the employer.  However, when it comes to employees who work on-call hours or 24 hour shifts at the jobsite, employers and many lower courts have been reluctant to pay workers for this time.  No longer.  Earlier this month a unanimous California Supreme Court clarified that on-call employees required to spend time at their worksites and under the employer’s control are entitled to compensation for all hours, including sleep time.

The ruling surprised some observers despite the fact that California law plainly requires that employees must be paid “for all hours worked.”  In reporting on the 18-year conflict between security guards and CPS Security Solutions, Inc., some legal press described the workers as “idle” and “getting paid to sleep.” This is far from the truth.  CPS Security required the guards to spend their on-call time at the jobsite. The guards were required to investigate in uniform all alarm sounds, or any noise, motion or other activity they heard during their on-call time. They had to stay vigilant and not consume alcohol.  They were not allowed to have pets, children or adult visitors.  Most importantly, the guards had to ask their employer for permission to leave.

Despite these numerous restrictions, CPS Security Solutions, Inc. paid the guards only when they were responding to an alarm or had asked for permission to leave but were either waiting or had been denied relief.  Guards who were required to remain on the construction site during their on-call hours were not paid.

The most galling part of CPS’ practice, however, was the way in which the company profited from these rules. While the workers were required to remain on the premises and not paid for this time, CPS charged its clients for the round-the-clock presence of these guards.  In fact, the company admitted that these guards were an integral part of their business model.

CPS Security is not the only firm using this business model.  Employers of domestic workers, private correctional officers, environmental contractors and others refuse to pay for on-call time unless the worker is actively engaged in responding to calls or emergencies. It would be hard to imagine asking a firefighter to remain on alert at all times, but pay only for the time she responds to a fire, yet this is just what these companies have been doing.

The court’s ruling should be far-reaching. California has long recognized that long hours are harmful to employees’ health.  There is a growing body of evidence that links excessive work hours with substantial risks for occupational injury and illness.  And despite claims that “paying for sleep” will have a negative impact on business, in fact the decision may boost the economy. One obvious way to cut down on costs is to hire more employees, rather than one employee for a 24-hour shift.  Employers benefit when they have on-call workers at their job sites, and so do their clients. Now, more workers may benefit as well.

Hina Shah argued before the California Supreme Court for a number of organizations as amici curiae on behalf of the plaintiff. 

Hina Shah

About Hina Shah

Hina B. Shah is an Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director at the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic (WERC) of Golden Gate University School of Law, addressing employment and labor issues faced by low wage and immigrant workers.

A Nation at Waste: The long-term unemployed and job discrimination

A Nation at Waste: The long-term unemployed and job discrimination

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By Hina Shah

President Obama in his State of the Union speech was upbeat as he pronounced that we had the lowest unemployment rate in over five years.  But this optimistic forecast glosses over the epidemic of the long-term unemployed.  There are 3.9 million Americans who have been unemployed 27 weeks or longer and 2.6 million who have been unemployed for 52 weeks or longer, according to the National Employment Law Project’s report.

Stigmatization and discrimination against the long-term unemployed creates a major barrier to ending this epidemic.  Rand Ghayad, a doctoral student of economics, conducted an experiment where 4800 computer-generated resumes of fictitious workers were sent out with identical credentials with varying unemployment lengths and industry experience.  Workers who reported being unemployed for six months or more were almost never contacted.  “It isn’t that firms aren’t finding the right workers,” Ghayad said, “but that employers are screening out the long-term unemployed.”  This discrimination disproportionately impacts workers who are non-white, unmarried, disabled, impoverished and less educated – the groups who are over-represented among the long-term unemployed.

The President is on the right track when he asked business CEOs to take the pledge to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed and issued a directive to federal agencies not to screen out long-term unemployed workers from consideration for openings.  But even with these measures, we face a real crisis of creating a permanent class of jobless Americans, as Congress gridlocks over extending benefits to the long-term unemployed.  In a recent survey, 25 percent of the long-term unemployed reported that they did not have money for food and 10 percent have lost their home or apartment because they could not pay their rent or mortgage.  Economists all agree that long-term unemployment slows overall economic growth and hurts the nation as a whole.  Harder to quantify, but still real, is the toll that chronic unemployment takes on a person’s confidence and sense of dignity as well as their skill level.

We must do more to insure that the long-term unemployed are not abandoned on the road to economic recovery.  The National Employment Law Project recently issued nine recommendations to address long-term unemployment.  These are bold recommendations that call on the President, Congress and the business community to act to create new jobs and end the practice of discriminating against long-term unemployed individuals.

It is time to look again at the Roosevelt New Deal programs, like the Works Progress Administration that put 8.5 million Americans back to work building bridges, roads, public parks and strengthening America’s infrastructure. If we want to avoid a permanent subclass of citizens living in the shadow of our economy, the President must embrace a bolder path.

Hina Shah

About Hina Shah

Hina B. Shah is an Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director at the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic (WERC) of Golden Gate University School of Law, addressing employment and labor issues faced by low wage and immigrant workers.

Finally, overtime coverage for all domestic workers in California!

Finally, overtime coverage for all domestic workers in California!

BVHRFetCIAA_z1k.jpg-largeBy Hina Shah

After nearly 75 years of exclusion from federal and state labor protections, domestic workers have finally scored two important victories in their fight for equal treatment.  Late last week, Governor Brown signed AB 241, extending California overtime protections to domestic workers who spend a significant amount of time caring for children, elderly and people with disabilities.  One week earlier the federal Department of Labor finalized new rules that significantly extend federal minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers who care for the elderly and people with disabilities.  Together, these actions extend overtime coverage to all domestic workers in California.

These historic changes are a direct result of domestic workers organizing on the local, state, and national level.  Over the past eight years, the California Domestic Workers Coalition has built a grassroots, worker-led, statewide movement in California that includes allies from labor, faith groups and employers.  Similar efforts by domestic workers in New York and Hawaii have also resulted in legislative victories.

The struggle for equal treatment of domestic workers dates back to the beginning of the regulated workplace.  Domestic workers organized a massive letter writing campaign in the 1920s and 1930s. Highlighting slave-like working conditions, they petitioned President Franklin and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, to cover them under the Fair Labor Standards Act, to no avail.  Thirty-six years later, when Congress amended the FLSA to include most domestic workers in minimum wage protections and overtime pay, it exempted live-in domestic workers from overtime and excluded casual babysitters and companions for the elderly or people with disabilities entirely.

In California, a similar letter writing campaign was instituted to get the Wage Board to regulate employment in the home as early as the 1940s.  However, when California finally adopted a Wage Order for Household Occupations in 1976, it exempted domestic workers (called “personal attendants”) who spent a significant amount of time caring for children, elderly and people with disabilities.    Personal attendants finally gained minimum wage protection in 2001 and have only now gained the right to overtime.

These gains, while significant, are not secure.  Because the federal regulations do not take effect until 2015, there is fear that they may be reversed with a change in administration.  The California statute is set to expire in 2016, unless the legislature acts to extend it.

One reason for these time limitations is the fear that home care will become unaffordable for many modest to low-income recipients.  Available evidence is to the contrary.

Currently, fifteen states provide minimum wage and overtime protection to home care workers and twenty-one states provide minimum wage. According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, institutionalization rates are not higher in states that provide home care workers with minimum wage and overtime.  Furthermore, there is significant cost to high turnover rates (estimated at between 44 and 65%) that is a direct result of low wages and poor working conditions.

While neither AB 241 nor the federal rules are a panacea, domestic workers in California have much to celebrate this month. Today’s home-care industry is staffed by trained professionals. These workers are their families’ breadwinners.  The removal of these historical exemptions at both the federal and state level is an important first step in valuing their labor as real work, and recognizing the dignity of those who care for our loved ones.

Hina Shah

About Hina Shah

Hina B. Shah is an Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director at the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic (WERC) of Golden Gate University School of Law, addressing employment and labor issues faced by low wage and immigrant workers.

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