Contact center agents and supervisors are on the front lines of companies' relations with customers, in service, support, loyalty, sales, lead generation, billing and collections. They put on the smiles when they answer and make calls and contacts for their employers and if they are outsourcers their clients, on all manner of shifts. They receive in return more brickbats than bouquets while meeting stringent performance objectives, monitored up the tailfeathers, confined to tiny cubicles except for precisely measured periods. The contact center pay and benefits, while slightly higher and the hours are steadier than retail and hospitality are low yet unlike those fields there is little in the way of advancement, and so accordingly is the status of their work.
So when I read the release that Teleperformance USA, a unit of French-owned SR Teleperformance had to pay nearly $2 million in back wages to almost 16,000 contact center workers for overtime violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) my reaction was one of disgust. One that grew deeper when I found out that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)'s Wage and Hour Division reported that the overtime violations "occurred primarily because employees were not compensated for all hours worked when the company failed to pay for breaks that were less than 30 minutes in length, or for time spent by employees waiting for work areas to become available even though their shifts already had started."
My face reddened even more when I saw that the DOL said that "a small percentage of the employees for whom back wages were computed were misclassified as salaried exempt under the FLSA" a.k.a. they weren't eligible for overtime and were more at managements' beck-and-call.
The sums involved may not be a lot, but when you earn the kind of money that contact center agents make--and this isn't "pin money or beer money" folks, these are real people who rely on the work to feed and house themselves and their families--the compensation swiped can make the difference whether you can fill the gas tank, buy the bus pass or what your child eats or if they go hungry at lunch.
Moreover these violations did not appear to be just at one shop or as a result of a zealous manager or two. Not with the scale of employees impacted. The DOL said that the settlement covers workers in Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.
From this information this abuse of contact center workers' basic labor and human rights appeared to have been systematic. And if it is then the settlement agreed by Teleperformance was far too lenient.
The actions by those responsible under its employ reeks of the most callous and cowardly type of taking advantage of vulnerable men and women in a tough economy, an atrocious and outrageous kind of nickel-and-diming, knowing that these individuals had few alternatives for employment or recourse and that they will keep their mouths shut out of fear of being fired and losing what little they have. In fairness,Teleperformance USA's managers are unfortunately far from the first nor sadly they will be the last across all industries who has behaved in such a vile, reprehensible manner.
Kudos though to the DOL for its actions. It is heartening to see that the Labor Department is sticking up for low-wage workers: who have suffered the most in the downturn.
"The Labor Department will not hesitate to enforce federal law to the fullest extent possible when employers do not pay their employees all of the wages to which they are entitled," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "These workers received the back wages they earned and deserved."
There are no excuses for those responsible at Teleperformance USA. There are many teleservices companies, most of which are smaller than Teleperformance and a few larger, and most manage on tight margins in highly competitive and often difficult environments without resorting to such acts. I know; I've reported on and worked for teleservices companies for some 15 years and have family members and friends who have worked in the business including on the call floors.
I've praised Infocision Management Corporation for how well it treat its staff. The other teleservices companies that do likewise know who you are and what your staff thinks of your firm and rightly so. If these companies can do the right thing then there is no reason for Teleperformance USA or for that matter any other outfit to do likewise.
The DOL also said "Teleperformance USA cooperated fully and worked quickly and effectively to resolve all issues identified."
I'd like to add that Teleperformance should publicly fire all of the individuals who made, approved and not alerted senior management i.e. nose-holding these inhumane actions or better yet make them work on the call floors and let the other staff know why they're there for a taste of "break period justice".
At the same time Teleperformance should take a deep dive into its management recruitment and supervision policies to weed out bad managers and make sure that incompetents similar to those who caused this type of costly trouble--and unwanted publicity--never see the entrances of its offices ever again.
By taking these actions Teleperformance senior management will send the right message that poor treatment of employees who work very hard to deliver the company's services for its clients and ultimately their customers will not and will never be tolerated.