Managing Employees

Stingy Company Ordered to Pay $1.75 Million to Workers It Forced to Choose Between Pay and Bathroom Breaks

Stingy Company Ordered to Pay $1.75 Million to Workers It Forced to Choose Between Pay and Bathroom Breaks
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If you were docked pay for bathroom breaks, would you hold it until you clocked out or sacrifice the money and relieve yourself?

Employees working at American Future Systems Inc. allegedly have to make that humiliating choice every day. Hopefully not for a moment longer now that L. Felipe Restrepo has stepped in. This week, the U.S. district court judge slapped the stingy content-marketing firm with a fine of $1.75 million to make it right with workers it forced to forgo pay while using the toilet and for taking other short personal breaks.

The company -- which ironically publishes newsletters on best employment practices for businesses, including one titled “Keep Up to Date on Payroll” -- has until tomorrow to figure out how it will fork over the money. The hefty punitive tab accounts for both back pay and liquidated damages owed to 6,000 workers. We reached out to the Malvern, Penn.-based company for comment, but have yet to hear back.

Related: KFC's Chicken 'Supplier of the Year' Fined $1.4 Million After Workers Lose Fingers and a Leg in Accidents

The employees punched in -- and out to heed nature’s call -- at 14 company offices from July 2009 to July 2013 in not only the Keystone State, but also at locations in Ohio and New Jersey, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The company has yet to change it ways, officials say, so the damages owed are only expected to increase.

"No worker should have to face the choice: Do I take a bathroom break, or do I get paid?" Adam Welsh, an attorney from the U.S. Department of Labor's Philadelphia office told the Inquirer. "I think it's the rare employer who doesn't allow its employees to go to the bathroom.”

Rare? Give us a break. That’s far too mild an assessment. Cruel and unusual is more like it.

Related: What Businesses in NYC Need to Know About Discrimination Against Transgender Workers

It bears noting that businesses throughout the U.S. aren’t legally required to afford employees personal breaks under federal law. State laws pertaining to employee breaks vary. (You can look yours up here.) When employers do allow short, non-meal breaks, they are required to pay workers for the time they take, which federal law states can range between 5 and 20 minutes per break. Compensable work stoppages that qualify as brief personal breaks include smoke breaks, coffee breaks, breaks to make calls and receive visitors and, yes, bathroom breaks, too.

With its employee management practices apparently in the toilet for years, it's no surprise American Future Systems reportedly has a hard time retaining employees.

"It's a very high turnover because of that," Ivette Vigano, assistant director of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division office in Philadelphia, told the Inquirer. "Most of them aren't kids. They are mature adults. For them not to be able to take a brief break to relieve themselves, to speak bluntly, it's very sad."

Related: When Company Culture Becomes Discrimination

American Future Systems Inc., which operates publicly under the name Progressive Business Publications, informed employees in 2009 that they could go on personal breaks “at any time for any reason,” but, if they opted to do so, they wouldn’t be paid for them.  

The Department of Labor lawsuit, originally filed in 2012, alleged that the company flouted the federal Fair Labor Standards Act because its workers weren’t making minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) when their bosses required them to take unpaid breaks, according to the Associated Press.

We hope the Fed’s massive bill moves the company's bosses to change their tighfisted ways once and for all.

Related: How to Make the Most Out of Your Break

Edition: November 2016

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