If an employee is not allowed to read, listen to music or use heat or air conditioning during a lunch break, can it still be considered a "break" from work?
AT&T employee Deborah Sturgeon, a technician in Indiana, says no. And she's willing to take her employer to court to prove it, Courthouse News reports.
Sturgeon and 10 other named plaintiffs from Indiana filed a class action Friday in U.S. District Court, alleging that their employers, AT&T Teleholdings, Indiana Bell, Ameritech Services and AT&T Services, do not provide proper breaks and pressure employees to work through them without compensation.
The suit seeks an injunction and punitive damages for violations of the federal Fair Labor Standard Act, as well as for violations of Indiana's wage and record-keeping laws.
Kimberly D. Jeselskis, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said her clients, who are paid by the hour, are entitled to overtime if they work more than 40 hours. In order to make sure employees do not work more than the allotted 40, they are required to take off the clock lunches.
"But they are really not taking a lunch break, because they have to stay with the vehicle, they can't go home," Jeselskis told The Huffington Post. "Yet, they're being charged for that time. In effect they are working over 40 hours a week," and therefore are missing out on overtime pay, she told HuffPost.
According to the suit, AT&T Midwest employs close to 1,300 technicians in various capacities across the state of Indiana. These employees work in shifts about nine hours long, with unpaid lunch breaks of either 30 or 45 minutes.
However, these breaks are subject to "heavy restriction." Technicians who do manhole work are required to guard the manhole while on break. Such workers cannot eat lunch at any location more than a half mile from their assigned routes, which makes finding food "difficult to impossible" on some routes.
If employees bring lunch from home, they are allowed to eat in their vehicles, but after the food is consumed, they are not allowed to engage in any extracurricular, personal activities.
The suit continues, "Moreover, separate from the restrictions, the Company's productivity-based performance ranking system puts the technicians under significant pressure to work through unpaid lunch breaks in order to complete as many jobs as possible in each work shift."
Lunch breaks are not mandated by the federal government, and if they are provided, they do not need to be paid. While different states can implement their own regulations, Indiana so far has not enacted mandatory breaks.
In contrast, California is one state that has enacted its own separate regulations, requiring employers to provide 30-minute breaks if an employee is working more than five hours at a time.
In April, the California Supreme Court ruled that employers are not required to make sure employees actually take their breaks, only that they be made available, according to the Associated Press.
Update: AT& reached out to The Huffington Post to respond to the lawsuit. Speaking through a spokesperson, the company said only, “AT&T is committed to full compliance with all federal and state laws, including wage and hour laws, and has received numerous awards for being an employer of choice.”