California Tech Writers win overtime settlement, and why it may be bad news

In 2006, a technical writer filed a wage and hour lawsuit against Sun Microsystems, alleging that the company violated California labor law by not paying overtime. Well, a judge has given preliminary approval to a $5 million settlement in the case, which grew to a class action with 152 plaintiffs.

I have mixed feelings about this development. The settlement works out to $21,000 per plaintiff after attorneys’ fees, and I’m happy for my colleagues. We know the kind of hours technical writers put in as deadlines loom. I have worked at companies where overtime was considered normal, and it’s not conducive to good work, good health, or good family relations. I’ve also worked contracts where I’ve received overtime, which made staying up all night finishing a proposal much more palatable. In future, more tech writers may find their long hours of effort renumerated, or their employers may put more effort into planning and staffing to avoid the need for overtime.

But the plaintiffs’ case in part rested on the argument that technical writers do not exercise discretion or independent judgment. They deprecated themselves as inferior in that regard to software engineers. As someone who has always considered himself a professional, and who is actively trying to establish technical communication as a profession, the argument, which has apparently carried the day, is self limiting. It’s great to get overtime pay, but not at the expense of becoming an administrative worker.

Even worse are the possible repercussions. Exempt employees earn a fixed salary, so there’s no upside, but there’s no downside, either: you don’t punch a clock, you don’t get docked if you come back a few minutes late from lunch. It’s a two-way street. And that’s peanuts compared to losing your job altogether. Before the settlement, one employment attorney said he would advise his high-tech clients to move their technical writers out of the state rather than pay them overtime in California. So this could wind up being a Pyrrhic victory–excuse me, an epic fail.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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