DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Maybe some of you are familiar with wage theft, not being paid for work that's on the clock. Well, what about when a scheduled lunch break at work never happens, and you're an hourly worker who ends up working instead? Well, that is called time theft. And our colleagues Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from our Planet Money team bring us a story of Dawn, a nurse in Texas who specializes in postpartum care.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Dawn is usually looking after around seven or eight new mothers and babies a day. When they need something or have a question, they call Dawn on a phone she keeps in the pocket of her scrubs. And there are a lot of questions.
DAWN: How do I do the birth certificate? When do I get to go home? When does the doctor come in (laughter)?
CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Between patient care and all the questions, Dawn says, she doesn't have time for a lunch break on most days.
DAWN: Even if I get a 30-minute lunch, I still have a phone in my pocket and anybody can come searching for me.
VANEK SMITH: Dawn says her patients all take a survey at the end of their hospital stay. It is issued by Medicare and Medicaid, and if the survey scores aren't really high, there's a risk the hospital won't get reimbursed by the government.
DAWN: One of the questions that they ask is, how quickly did your nurse respond to your pressing the call light or making a phone call?
GARCIA: Dawn realized she was often working 90 minutes a week that she was not getting paid for. So Dawn headed up a class action lawsuit on behalf of the nurses in her hospital for time theft. She asked that we not use her last name or name the hospital where she works because that lawsuit is still going on.
VANEK SMITH: And so are a lot of lawsuits like this. Liz Tippett is an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon, and she just completed a study where she looked at hundreds of cases of time theft.
LIZ TIPPETT: So I looked at court decisions involving lawsuits over the way that employers had set up their timekeeping systems.
GARCIA: Liz cites a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute which found that time theft violations for minimum wage workers totaled more than $15 billion a year.
VANEK SMITH: And the report found nearly a fifth of low-wage workers are experiencing a pretty extreme impact of time theft. The report said these workers were losing about a quarter of their weekly earnings to wage theft.
TIPPETT: The more I looked into this, the worse it looked.
VANEK SMITH: Do you think automation makes it worse?
VANEK SMITH: Really?
TIPPETT: Here's why. Let's say you've had sort of an older version of wage theft where someone tells you, you just have to work off the clock. There are sort of social limits to that because when you tell someone you need to work off the clock, they know they're being asked to work on the clock, and they might get fed up. But when one person presses a button once, and it just shaves off time day after day after day, that's a scalable robot that can do it every day with great consistency. It's like evil spell check.
VANEK SMITH: Liz Tippett says the situation could easily change. She thinks regulation should be put in place that would force employers to stop rounding or that would force them to stop using software to create a situation where employees are pressured to say they took breaks that they didn't actually take. Dawn, the nurse in Texas, said she would love to see a solution at her hospital that would facilitate the nurses actually being able to take their breaks.
DAWN: I know some hospitals have implemented a partnership where you partner two nurses together and they basically take turns.
VANEK SMITH: So one nurse would take lunch and the other nurse would cover his or her patients, and then they could switch off. Dawn says this has started coming up in staff meetings as a solution, but it would probably mean hiring more people. Stacey Vanek Smith.
GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.
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