A federal judge said today that potentially thousands of former BellSouth field workers can sue the telecommunications company for an estimated $1 billion in unpaid overtime.
The suing workers say that until 2007, BellSouth field managers were paid overtime if they worked more than 40 hours a week. But after AT&T bought BellSouth in September of that year, the overtime payments were stopped, even though the field managers were required to work as much as 70 hours a week.
Chief U.S. District Judge Julie Carnes in Atlanta classified the case as a class action, opening up the overtime claims to all potentially affected workers in the Southeast, including hundreds of workers in North Carolina.
The workers could be owed more than $100,000, said Steven Wittels, the New York lawyer handling the case.
"AT&T is really rolling the dice," Wittels said. "We're looking at many thousands of workers in all nine states."
According to the suit, AT&T considers field managers to be executive and administrative positions and therefore not covered by federal overtime requirements.
An AT&T spokesman said the company complies with labor laws.
The workers filing suit say they are managers in name only. They say they have no authority to hire, fire, promote or make other managerial decisions.
"Plaintiffs argue they have been misclassified as exempt because they are really 'low-level' clerks," the judge's ruling says. "The bulk of their day is spent doing paperwork and entering computer data. Plaintiffs further allege their work is highly regimented, micromanaged, and lacks true managerial authority."
The reason field managers work such long hours, the suit says, is because they must perform "duty shift" every few weeks. During their shifts, they must be on call 24 hours a day for seven days, must respond to phone calls and emails after hours, can't drink alcohol and can't leave their territories.
In court filings AT&T said that the field managers' primary duties at BellSouth consisted of managing technicians. Duties included included managing and evaluating technician performance, training technicians, assessing the safety and quality of the technician’s work, allocating and balancing technician workloads, making decisions regarding grievances and discipline, and determining whether and when to authorize overtime work.
"This case was filed not because field managers are not 'really managers,' but because BellSouth previously paid field managers extra 'duty pay' when they were periodically assigned to work outside their ordinary work schedules," AT&T said in a court filing. "When that practice was discontinued, several disgruntled field managers filed this lawsuit."
AT&T further says "it is abundantly clear that field managers are not mere clerks and that they do far more than relay information back and forth to technicians."
The field managers work work in a number of AT&T divisions: installation and maintenance, construction and engineering, and U-verse, the name of AT&T's Internet and television service.
Wittels is handling two similar cases filed in California and in Connecticut. The Connecticut case is scheduled for trial in October.