Far from the negotiating tables at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, the Verizon Communications employees picketing along Pratt Street in 90-degree heat yesterday said it's not just more money they're striking for.
In fact, Zarina Maith wouldn't mind earning a bit less.
As the strike by 87,000 Verizon employees entered its third day, Maith and other Baltimore area workers said forced overtime is one of the worst aspects of their job, and the one they most want Verizon labor negotiators to change.
"I'd rather spend more time with my children," said Maith, a single mother of three who was joined on the picket line yesterday by her son Jordan, 3.
For four hours in the muggy heat, Jordan carried a sign around his neck: "My Future Depends on my Mommy's job! No forced OT."
At the bargaining table, negotiators for the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represent about 60 percent of Verizon's employees, including 8,200 in Maryland, were unable to reach agreements with the company on three major issues: forced overtime; the transfer of work and workers to other regions; and union workers' access to jobs in Verizon's nonunion cellular phone and Internet-related divisions.
Hopes for a quick settlement died yesterday, and a few of the 12 affected states reported sporadic violence and sabotage at Verizon offices.
None of that was evident in Maryland. On Pratt Street, at the corner of Light, about 30 workers in red shirts picketed outside Verizon's service center, which employs about 500. And the issue about which many of them were barking loudest was the company policy requiring 10 to 15 hours of overtime per week.
The issue is especially real for Maith, who is regularly forced to work 10-hour days.
"I want to be able to sit down with my children, have dinner and help them with their homework," Maith said.
As a customer sales and service consultant, Maith handles customer calls for new service installations, changes to existing service and repairs. She sits at a desk on the seventh floor wearing a headset and punching up call after call, scores of them each day. When she breaks for lunch or for a bathroom visit, she must punch a code into her phone so the company can trace her hours.
She's been there since December. She likes the benefits, the 11 paid holidays, the two weeks' vacation.
"I love my job," Maith said. "We just want what's fair."
The problem is this: She gets paid for a 7 1/2 -hour day, but on any day of the week can be forced to stay an extra two to three hours. She gets paid for it, but she also has to pay extra to her day-care provider. And the overtime keeps her away from her children. Most days, she's gone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
"I want my time devoted to my children," she said.
Forced overtime has become common at many telecommunications companies and is the result of growing demand for new or upgraded phone service to handle computer and Internet connections. Cost-cutting by those companies during the late 1980s and early 1990s has created a shortage of workers to meet the new demands.
Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said the overtime requirement kicks in when offices can't keep up with incoming orders and when managers can't find enough volunteers to work the extra hours.
Union leaders said Verizon managers are abusing the overtime provision by not giving workers sufficient notice and, in some offices, by requiring employees to work many 52-hour weeks in a row. Also, workers who aren't able to work overtime during the week are often required to work on weekends.
"It's not just a money issue for some people," said Maria Bury, a 31-year Bell Atlantic employee and president of CWA's Local 2101, which represents about 2,500 operators and cable splicers in the Baltimore area.
Some workers also want assurances that they'll be eligible to compete for jobs in Verizon's fast-growing wireless division, which currently employs 32,000 nonunion workers.
"We do want more money," said Marcia Heckstall, a CWA union steward and a 22-year employee of Bell Atlantic who organized yesterday's picketing on Pratt Street. "But what we really want is respect and job security."