Damned if you do, damned if you don’t files: United Airlines customer service

by Ted Frank on April 14, 2009

There is a horrifying tale on Consumerist about a family that missed a flight to visit their dying mother in the hospital because a ticket agent refused to help them because it was time for her break.  What the story doesn’t tell you, and what none of the commenters seem to realize, is that it’s the trial lawyers that put United Airlines in that situation.  Oregon labor laws California labor laws require workers to be permitted to take breaks; plaintiffs’ attorneys have made a multi-million-dollar cottage industry out of class action lawsuits against employers where customer service was permitted to take priority and workers occasionally didn’t take their breaks.  (In California, the penalty for failing to provide a ten-minute break is an hour of pay.) To avoid this, the employer has to enforce the break period stringently, because they can potentially be held liable even if the employee voluntarily avoids the break.

{ 18 comments }

1 Invid 04.14.09 at 10:38 pm

This is why our profession always wins!
And why we should be the first lined up against the wall and shot during the next revolution. :)

2 John Fembup 04.14.09 at 10:40 pm

Not that many years ago I worked at a company that was obliged to threaten its employees with termination if they did not claim overtime pay.

The particular department had a long-standing work ethic of getting the job done. I worked in that department and put in a lot of overtime myself, and rarely submitted it. I want to be very clear that this was not because management discouraged overtime pay. It was because of the prevailing attitude among the workers. We all felt the obligation to get our jobs done, we all felt that asking for overtime pay was wimpy, and unless the overtime was extraordinary, we’d just not submit it. And most of us almost never felt overtime was “extraordinary”. It was part of the job we signed on for.

After a DOL audit in the early 1990s, the company issued a memo stating that employees who worked overtime and did not submit the time for reimbursement, were subject to termination.

Sound like a Scott Adams cartoon? True nevertheless.

3 Charley Gee 04.14.09 at 11:33 pm

Well, two things. Oregon labor laws have no application here as the flight was from San Francisco to Portland, so California laws would apply. Second, even if it had been in Portland, it is clearly United policies that would cause the delay, as Oregon labor laws provide exemptions, such as (from your linked site):

Q. What if the nature or circumstances of the work prevent me from giving my workers an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period?
A. If, because of the nature or circumstances of the work, an employee is required to remain on duty or to perform any tasks during the meal period, the employer must consider the meal period as hours worked and pay the employee for the period. Note: Whenever it is possible to provide an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period, the employer must do so.
————————-
Q. What are the basic requirements for rest breaks under Oregon law?
A. Employers must provide workers with a paid, uninterrupted 10-minute rest break for every four-hour segment or major portion thereof in the work period. OAR 839-020-0050(1)(b). The rest break should be given in the middle of each segment, whenever possible.

I really don’t see what plaintiff’s attorneys have done here, other than provide employees with the breaks they are entitled to at a reasonable time. If the airline employee was required (and did not just desire) a break a certain time, it was United’s policies that required her to do so, not the labor laws.

4 Ted Frank 04.15.09 at 4:03 am

@3: You are correct that this is California law, which is even worse on the issue for employers, especially on the issue of break-timing. I’ve corrected the post.

5 shg 04.15.09 at 9:05 am

I am so happy that Ted told me the secret reason for this travesty, trial lawyers. I thought it might be unions, or perhaps politics, or even sound policy, but I would have never suspected trial lawyers. If I had not been enlightened, I might have mistakenly thought that the customer service rep could chose to take the break after helping, or could have passed the problem to a co-worker so that the family was helped, but that the choice of taking a break was actually a personal one by a customer service agent who elected to exercise the right to take a break and leave the family stranded.

But thanks to Ted, I now know it wasn’t any of these things, but the trial lawyers. Thanks Ted, since but for your saying so, there would have been absolutely no way to know who to blame for this travesty and so many other, more reasonable, more likely, more expected, explanations for this disgraceful conduct. What would do without you?

6 Doug 04.15.09 at 9:55 am

I think the point of the post and of the entire site is that the law has imposed an extra burdens in everyday life. Sure, perhaps the gate agent could have waited, maybe (if I don’t take my mandatory break now, I face disciplinary proceedings and lose of pay) could have helped this family.

7 Anonymous Attorney 04.15.09 at 11:02 am

And here’s a little inside-the-profession tidbit:

There is probably NO ATTORNEY anywhere in AMERICA who, in the course of employment with a law firm, etc., is entitled to a mandated “break.” Believe me. If the legal profession itself had to comply with what it demand all other work-worlds do, it would crumble.

8 Monty 04.15.09 at 2:52 pm

One of the most annoying things about my last job was the stupidity of the lunch break. I was working part time for an agency during the summer, and at some point the higher ups started harrasing me for not taking a lunch break when I worked more than 6 hours. What exactly am I going to do during a 30 minute break in the middle of the day? I could drive 15 minutes home, get back in the car and drive 15 minutes back… I could stare idley at a wall for 30 minutes… For all intents and purposes, there is nothing I can do with the time, its really the employeers time, and if they don’t want to pay for a lunch break, why shouldn’t I be allowed to keep working and getting paid for it? I associated the problem with union representation, when I started I was working for a division of the state that was not unionized, and no one cared whether I decided to take a lunch break or not. Then halfway through, they transfered my job to a different division, which apperently made my job unionized… so in addition to having money stolen from my paycheck to fund the union (it would be taken whether or not I joined the union), they started demanding I take an unpaid lunch break… thanks union!

9 Tom T. 04.15.09 at 4:02 pm

I’d be surprised if California labor law required United to staff the ticket counter at San Francisco (a small hub for United) with only one working employee.

10 Timothy E. Harris 04.15.09 at 4:08 pm

I work for a large national retailer. When I started there almost 20 years ago I was allowed to go home 30 minutes early instead of taking my 30 minute lunch. The settlement of a lawsuit in Missouri forced a change in policy to disallow that. Other lawsuits have restricted timing of lunches & breaks further over the ensuing years.

The law generally has some flexibility. But when you are sued it doesn’t matter whether you are compliant – it’s whether you can prove you are. Making exceptions and allowing flexibility inhibits your ability to prove compliance.

11 Frank 04.15.09 at 5:06 pm

In a workplace (not the airport) where there are production quotas, when a co-worker works an extra half-hour to hour and a half unpaid every day, it may tend to make that worker seem more efficient, because there is no report that it takes more time to produce what has been produced. It may seem that other workers are inefficient, becuase they cannot produce in 8 hrs what that person produces in 9.5 hours. It may make it seem to employers that the production quota for 8 hours should be raised or perhaps that hours should be cut.

Union or not (I’m not) what people do by ‘working on the sly’ is make their co-workers look bad by cheating.

By the way, studies tend to show that not taking a lunch in the middle (thereabouts) of the day impacts most workers’ productivity dramatically and negatively.

12 Frank 04.15.09 at 5:28 pm

This does not seem to me to be a story desrving of much sympathy.

Reading the article you link to, I notice that, according to the delayed passenger, the ticketing agent offered immediately to get a supervisor. Could the supervisor have taken care of the ticketing? Yes, and ultimately the supervisor issued the tickets.

I also note that the delayed passenger stated plainly “I argued with this woman for a good 10 minutes”

IOW, it seems very likely she would have been back from her break in time had the passenger not been arguing with the agent whether she could take a break.

The upshot of the story – the parties arrived (via United by the way) in time to share the mother’s dying moments. Why were they flying in the first place? To do just what they were able to do.

13 Ron Miller 04.16.09 at 11:48 am

I agree with SHG although more tactfully. It is completely unfair to put all of this – any of this, actually – on trial lawyers. There is a tendency for all of us to construe facts consistent with our world view. But this is not remotely fair.

14 Janine 04.16.09 at 8:46 pm

One of the responses you received mentioned in the manufacturing world if an employee works 8 hours and an employee works 91/2 because he/she doesn’t have to show the overtime and the employee who works 91/2 shows more productivity than the person who only work 8 hours is very similiar to employees who choose not to file for “Workmen’s Comp” because they don’t want to look bad or because they don’t want to be retaliated by the employer or by the employee’s who look down on a person for filing a “Workmen’s Comp” claim is also doing the same thing by making the co-worker’s who file claims and advise their employer that they were hurt (Which is required by the company and is stated in the employee handbook that they are to notify their employer if they are hurt on the job)look like they are trouble makers and costing their employer money. The fact of the matter is Workmen’s Compensation was developed to protect the employer from being sued and to discourage the employee from seeking medical treatment and compensation for future injuries. So by not filing it makes the employer look good and allows them to get away with not addressing the safety issues that need to be corrected.

15 Janine 04.16.09 at 9:03 pm

Anyone who works in the Airline industry knows that there are so many time’s that the the agent’s are expected to work thru all lunch and 10 minute breaks when there are cancellations, delays, overbooked flights and expected to stay after their shift regardless of what commitments they may have after their shift. ( And for some stations this can be a every day thing). You could be the only agent stuck at the gate alone, meeting, boarding, assisting physically challenged customers while your co-worker/supervisor is know where to be found. And if your a responsible agent, management and your co-worker’s will take advantage of this. They know that you’ll be there no matter what. They won’t say hey you’ve been here all day go take a break, they won’t ask you if you need to take a lavatory break, they will leave you there to do the work. They will bounce you all over the station while some of your co-workers disappeared to take their smoking breaks. This goes on all the time.

The agent who walked away to take their break may have worked in similar situations and may have known that if they didn’t step away knowone would step in to give them a break.

The airlines don’t alway’s properly staff and this creates a very tire some strain on the individual when their are delays and oversold flights and there is no properly scheduled breaks for the employee’s.

This individual may have had medical reason’s for stepping away, they may have had a need to take care of an urgent physical need.

The Airlines a famous for these types of senario’s .

And then again maybe this employee was tired of being taken advantage of by the employer.

16 TracyHAE 04.17.09 at 2:43 am

@Frank: Yes, how dare those evil “Cheating” workers try to make themselves look better then their peers by working extra. If I worked in a sales environment, for example, where my commission was dependent on exceeding a goal each day you better believe Im going to work extra if need be to hit that goal. Additionally, if I feel that the extra time would increase my change of being promoted, getting a raise, or even keeping my job in a downturn then it is my right to do so.

Unions and labor laws have basically neutered the ability of companies to recognize and promote exceptional workers.

17 P.J. Zornosa 04.19.09 at 8:28 pm

Horse Manure. You cannot blame this one on the Lawyers. There are ALWAYS exceptions. I cannot imagine ANY judge much less a jury that would even consider this to be a case worth spending time with.

The United front counter agent had a choice – and she chose to argue because she was angry about the rules and was not sensitive to her customers who are human beings. (I am certain United would have recompensed her for the hour that goes with her untaken break.) The time she spent arguing with the consumer was unacceptable. In that period of time she could have made things happen for this distressed couple.

I am also certain thet the intent of the “lawyers” was to insure that United employees get a break to refresh themselves for dealing with consumers – NOT to discourage imminently appropriate customer service! Many lawyers are despicable in their motivations, however, not all of them are! (I am NOT an attorney.)

The real reason for the United employee’s anger could actually transcend the issue clearly exemplified. While the upper management earns many thousands and tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands more than the front line employees, the airlines first recourse to “save money” is to lay off a few thousand “regular” employees. When was the last time a useless Sr. VP was let go so that 100 to 200 others could keep their modestly paying jobs? God forbid!!

Still does not justify what happened. It’s Horse Manure.
(They should have asked what other airlines had flights soon….to Portland.)

Certainly spent a lot of time “Blaming” someone here. This country used to be about the sensitivity and “can do” attitude. Sure has changed – and I’m not an old coot!

18 lee 04.20.09 at 10:36 am

Having read all of the above I must be thankful that my experience with airlines was limited to those horrendous regulated days between 1950 and 1960. Beautiful stewardesses, crisp and neat and always smiling. I always had an assigned seat. I even remember round trip flights to Florida for $99 and a meal to boot. I’m not a world traveler and the last few times (during 2003) I was on a plane to Florida to stay with my mother who was dying I flew Southwest from MacArthur. I would describe it as herding cows. There weren’t enough wheelchairs for those who thought that would get them on first and a better seat. People were arriving 2 hours early just to get at the head of the line. The airline staff looked overwrought and unkempt. Nothing like the old days.

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