The Story of Kristi Rifkin and T-Mobile
In a recent news story, Kristi Rifkin, a T-Mobile call center employee detailed the trials of being forced to clock out and back in for bathroom breaks during her pregnancy. There was an issue in conflict between the employee (she needed to go to the bathroom more frequently during her pregnancy) and the employer (they wanted to have her clocked out during the time she was not at her desk or, more importantly, not on the phone with customers, the main work of the call center).
The story is interesting for a few reasons:
Attendance Gray Area
It shines a light on a gray area in employee attendance, that is, how you handle a pregnant employee's accommodations. Traditionally, these items have included reassigning them to lighter duties, or exempting them from heavy lifting. But in this case, the employee’s requested accommodation for additional bathroom breaks was clearly and directly hitting an easy-to-measure indicator of the call center’s productivity: hours per day or shift spent with customers. Legally, accommodations for pregnant workers vary by state, but most focus on leave policies, or physical work, not bathroom breaks.
Both Sides Appear To Have A Point
It’s an issue where two sides both have a strong footing in the dispute. The pregnant employee has valid concerns over remaining hydrated and therefore making more trips to the bathroom. The employer, without a policy of how to accommodate this situation, chose to limit the “cost” of any bathroom break accommodations by having the employee clock out during those times. The employer was in effect saying, “we will accommodate your need for additional breaks, but at your cost, not ours.”
The Hidden Costs
Maybe Kristi Rifkin might win her day in the court of public opinion, or in the news. But legally, in Tennessee, a “right to work” state, she probably has no case at all. Federal policy has not spoken on accommodating pregnant workers with additional bathroom breaks. So what’s the problem for this employer? Bad public relations in the employer’s local community, or in the national news they might look a little harsh. In an industry where the majority of call center operators in low-cost locations are female, maybe they will have more difficulty making new hires. Perhaps the cost of managing this situation was more than it was worth. Perhaps there was a negative effect on the morale of other high-producing women workers in the call center, who, at their first opportunity might look for a more “family friendly” employer. 3) But mostly, it suggests that animosity and misunderstanding easily can grow during difficult attendance situations, especially when both sides do not have a clear picture of what is expected, or how work hours are being tracked and paid.
When Things Are Not Clear, Animosity Grows
In this case, the employer’s policy was not as clear as it could have been. Maybe they have attorneys advising them to manage these situations using an “unwritten policy” that will be more difficult to litigate against. Fair enough. If this is your situation, there are other tools to manage these situations. In Kristi’s case, she was asked to document her extra bathroom breaks on paper and turn that into her supervisor. Here paper forms put the onus on the employee, using the honor system, to truthfully track her extra breaks, so they, more or less, would be docked from her pay. In addition, her supervisor was reviewing her paper forms and most likely signing them as a valid representation of break time that would reduce her pay.
T-Mobile: Technology Leader Using Paper Forms
T-Mobile is a telecommunications giant that perhaps we could even define as a leading technology company. Yet, in the year 2013 they were using paper forms to have an employee self-document these bathroom break exceptions. Why? Perhaps they thought paper forms were cheaper than using software systems. Perhaps they thought it was more fair, or less demeaning to the employee, to have her record her own additional breaks using an honor system.
Whatever the reason, let’s finish the narrative of what probably happened. Every day, the employee’s submission of this form set up a natural friction point. This employee was probably one of a few or the only employees submitting the form in her department. The supervisors probably questioned certain entries, or the lack of entries, as they should if they were doing their job. The additional break time was probably added up manually by supervisors and sent to payroll so they could manually back out these hours. The employee, at the same time, if she wanted, would keep a running tally of additional break hours and deduct them from her total work hours. If she forget to do this, or was too busy running back from the bathroom and then home to her other kids, she would learn about her pay reduction when she looked at her paycheck stub in two weeks. Maybe the supervisors did not have time to tally these additional break hours because they were busy with other things, and instead threw the forms over the wall to payroll. With her smaller paycheck in hand, Kristi must have asked supervisors all sorts of questions they could not easily answer. Payroll probably filed the forms away, misfiled them away or worse yet lost them altogether. It’s a big payroll department and they probably did not have time to answer her questions quickly. Documented exceptions are also harder to discuss with an employee because, well, they are exceptions after all that don’t happen very frequently for most employees.
In short, while T-Mobile might have thought having Kristi document their own attendance exceptions this way was best, the process must have been fraught with tabulation errors, managers not having proper access to information needed to answer questions. Kristi could pick up her T-Mobile cell phone and see how many minutes she used on her call to her mother last night, but she and her supervisors probably did not have easy access to the details of her bathroom break hours until the paycheck arrived. Imagine that you had to write down every cell phone call each day to know whether you were going to exceed 2,000 minutes this month! Okay, maybe that was the case in 1995. But this is 2013!
What They Should Have Done
The purpose of time and attendance systems is to record clock ins and clock outs. When you calculate the difference between a start and finish time you get the hours that you pay an employee. It's that simple. When an employee is not working, or your policy is that they must record an additional work break for whatever reason, they should always clock out. If they want to be paid for that time not working, they should use paid time off to make up the difference. Questions of fairness aside, setting up an “exceptions” system and taking the employee out of the standard attendance system is fraught with the problems discussed above. But there are additional problems. If employees and supervisors do not have ready access to clock in and clock out times, the employer and employee do not have a clear picture of how work time and absences are being tracked. If you have a paper-based time and attendance system you should automate it with a web-based time and attendance system, whether it is purchased or home-grown. You should be using methods that authenticate clock in and clock out times. These include proximity or biometric time clocks. Where workers are at a desk, like in a call center, the workers should be authenticating through a login and password. If you require biometric authentication or digital signatures from an employee for clocking in and clocking out, that’s available now as well. Employees, supervisors, human resources and payroll staff should have easy real time access to attendance hours data. Why? Things go more smoothly when everyone knows, and knows with confidence, what happened and what to expect in their paycheck. Employee-supervisor relations are friendlier when everyone knows what’s what, and when’s when. When the time and effort it takes to check the facts of attendance and hours is low or negligible, people tend to do this frequently. If it’s hard to do, the demands of your work and family will make you a know-nothing. You probably won’t take the time to check things, until you're holding your paystub, or an employee is handing you his paystub with a frown on his or her face.
The case of Kristi Rifkin and a T-Mobile call center in Tennessee did not result in lawsuits. Maybe T-Mobile saved some money. But T-Mobile probably lost a lot more. Perhaps they lost a fine employee. Maybe they will have future retention issues with other fertile female employees watching from the sidelines. Maybe all those reading about her story will think twice about accepting a job at their call centers. But worse yet, their manual exceptions process probably cost them more in the employee’s, supervisor’s and payroll staff’s time than they ever saved.
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