Monday, September 04, 2000

Resistance to overtime stirs battles

Workers fight employer demands for extra hours

By Brian Tumulty
Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — Nurse Julie Guido had just finished her three regular 12-hour shifts plus two eight-hour shifts of voluntary overtime over five consecutive days when she was ordered to fill in for another shift.

        “I was there doing paperwork, and they were going to mandate me to work 20 minutes after my shift ended, so I refused,” said Ms. Guido, who works in the intensive care unit at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, N.Y.

        Ms. Guido, who complained to the hospital administration after the recent incident, thinks many hospitals have gone too far in mandating overtime for nurses and other health care workers who are already stretched to their limit. Patients don't receive the quality of care they should when nurses are tired and cranky, she said. And they aren't the only ones shortchanged.

        “I miss my kids,” Ms. Guido said. “I have games and sports I've missed.”

        Unwanted overtime, a chronic problem for nurses, is increasingly becoming a source of labor disputes in other fields. Among the bargaining issues for communications workers in the Verizon strike was a cap on mandatory overtime for customer service representatives and field technicians. The Communications Workers of America has fought similar battles at other Baby Bells.

        Labor leaders say these disputes are commonplace and will continue to grow with record low unemployment making it hard to fill jobs and workers trying hard to balance work and family life.

        “This is about management in general trying to deal with cost pressures they feel by squeezing workers ever harder,” said David Smith, public policy director of the AFL-CIO.

        “Traditionally, we think about overtime in the manufacturing sector, but the Verizon strike suggests this has been an issue for service workers,” Mr. Smith said.

        At Verizon, customer service representatives in some Mid-Atlantic states were regularly being forced to work 17 hours of overtime or more each week, said Linda Kramer, president of CWA Local 1023 in New Jersey. Verizon service representatives in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New England were allowed to go home after they reached a contractual cap on their overtime, so the extra work was funneled to New Jersey and Delaware, where there was no limit on mandatory overtime, she said.

        Most of the Verizon customer service representatives are women who don't want unlimited overtime, Ms. Kramer said.

        But the Employment Policy Foundation, a prominent Washington-based think tank which represents employer views, argues that the issue of overtime — even voluntary overtime — is not prevalent in the workplace.

        Federal data show that four out of five employees who are paid by the hour did not work any overtime last year, said Edward Potter, the foundation's president. According to the 1999 federal Current Population Survey, only 21.2 percent of all 70.5 million hourly workers worked any overtime last year.

        That's 3.4 million more people working overtime than in 1992, when the current economic expansion began to develop momentum, but not a much higher percentage, up from 19 percent.

        “This issue of overtime is more of an individual matter rather than a collective matter,” Mr. Potter said.


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