Tech writer launches class action lawsuit against Sun Microsystems

A former technical writer for Sun Microsystems has filed a class action lawsuit against Sun, claiming that writers are unfairly assigned exempt status.

Dani Hoenemier says she worked long days as a technical writer for Sun Microsystems, sometimes spending over 60 hours a week at her computer when the company was preparing a new product release.

Sun’s technical writers may earn salaries of $100,000 a year, but they don’t get overtime pay for the extra hours, according to Hoenemier’s attorney, who is challenging the company’s practice of treating Hoenemier and about 300 other writers as exempt from state labor laws governing overtime and breaks.

Wow - a single technical writer (that the company calls “disgruntled”) managed to create this firestorm of controversy. I don’t get it. Most technology workers, including writers, are exempt (I have exempt status). It’s a fairly standard way of doing things nowadays. Everyone knows this before they sign an employment contract.

I’ve heard (through private channels) of at least one Sun employee who expressed frustration at how the lawsuit might negate a long-term effort by the writers to get themselves recognized as professionals on their own merits. I’m sure it goes without saying that this is probably a common frustration among the writers — hence why the article goes on to say:

Many of the writers don’t want to be hourly workers and have declined to cooperate with the lawsuit, Sun said in a statement. In court, Sun argued the case should not be a class action because the writers don’t have uniform duties.

Superior Court Judge Jack Komar disagreed, although he ordered Hoenemier’s attorneys to find a second employee willing to be named as a plaintiff in the case.

If the lawsuit continues, Sun could be out well over $20 million in back pay, which might just be enough to kill the company outright. And then what kind of backlash against tech writers would ensue…?


13 Responses to “Tech writer launches class action lawsuit against Sun Microsystems”

  • I’m indifferent to this whole suit, but it’s not unique (maybe in that it involves tech writers, but not in general). Many companies are auditing their positions by role and level to determine which should be exempt and which hourly to avoid this very mess.

  • $20 million is not even a rounding error in Sun’s revenues.

  • Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the relevant laws, and I believe most workers out here are labeled exempt shouldn’t be. The high tech white collar exemption only covers a very small minority of us.

    On the other hand, I think people should stop hiding behind laws and just go tell their boss they won’t work 60 hours for peanuts. (Or be on call 24/7, or do any of the other asinine things that we’re asked to do all too much out here).

  • Knock on effect for the technical writing industry? Possibly, but if we haven’t yet gotten the message that we each need to prove our worth to our current employers then I’d take the stance that it’s too late too late.

    By nature many technical writers are good communicators on a one-to-one basis but need to work more on one-to-many to make sure people know who they are, what they do and just how valuable they are (and will continue to be).

  • I have been unable to get a technical writer to talk with me about what is the norm in your business and generally whether or not tech writers feel like they should be non-exempt. My gut tells me they are mostly okay with the exempt classification, as this post suggests.

    Would you be able to speak with me today, 5/19 (I’m on a tight deadline!), or even just comment on this via email? Here is what I’m interested in:

    (1) Do tech writers generally understand the terms of employment, that they are not entitled to overtime and are exempt professionals, when they’re hired?

    (2) Is it the industry standard for tech writers to be classified as exempt? Are there some technical writers who legimitately can be considered non-exempt?

    (3) Is there a sense among you and other tech writers that you have somehow been wronged or taken advantage of by your employer(s)?

    (4) Would you rather be classified as non-exempt? Why or why not?

    -Steve Tanner

  • Steve,

    Sorry I didn’t manage to comment by 19 May.

    I personally wouldn’t dream of speaking for other tech writers. As the comments to this post show, some have no problem with being exempt while others feel it’s inappropriate. I’ll let the readers post and/or contact you with their own answers.

    At the end of the day, it probably comes down to whether or not your environment (employers/coworkers) is one that takes unfair advantage of the exempt classification. Mine tends not to, but naturally I’ve heard of some who do. Everyone at some point has put in a monster week or two as a deadline approached. A couple of years ago I had a 200 hour timecard period, for instance. It was important work, and it had to be done.

    But if you’re an exempt TW and putting in 60 hour weeks on a regular basis (not by choice), then your employer/management/team is either (1) incompetent in some fashion, or (2) taking advantage of your exempt status.

  • .My reply didn’t make it up… I probably messed up a tag.

    Here’s a link.

    Personally, I tend to view this as a problem that needs a solution. Were I negotiating this matter I would bring up two specific issues which could have prevented this from occurring, or which could lessen the expectations of management.
    First, one thing that Adobe does do right is that they allow telecommuting. This allows a 60 hour work week to be reasonably managed along with a busy life schedule because employees can manage their lives around the time they put in on their home systems.
    Second, by having a workflow that allows input remotely without endless face to face meetings (the absolute largest waste of time I observed while working as a tech writer for a nameless military contractor) and proper collaboration, a lot of this time saved reflects working smarter, not harder.
    Getting Granular about Exempt Status
    I found the following definition of exempt status online:

    EXEMPT means the job is NOT subject to payment for overtime hours worked. Employer policy may elect to compensate incumbents in these jobs for their overtime, but there are no restrictions on rates used or quantity of hours paid to incumbents in exempt jobs.
    Overtime requirements apply to the JOB not the EMPLOYEE. It is the responsibility content of the job that determines if incumbent employees must be paid for the overtime they work.

    There is a Highly Compensated Job exempt status but it only applies to Public-Sector Employees.
    Legally, exempt employees are due overtime in California law if it can be proven that they regularly cannot complete their normal assigned tasks without working overtime. Two years ago a roommate of mine ended up winning a similar judgement simply by making a phone call to an attorney and having them contact the HR department where he was working.
    What it takes to document your situation is at the very least, logging your hours worked along with the tasks you are assigned. Regardless of exempt/non-exempt status, in California the Overtime law states that you cannot be expected to be working for free, which is what regular overtime without pay is.
    Summing up, legally Sun is responsible, at least to one employee. The judge’s court order has the attorneys searching for a second employee, a reasonable request given the frequency with which John Edwards-like trial lawyers tend to overuse the class action.
    The lawyers will win one person’s case, that’s a given. A landmark ‘blow for Sun techcomms’ it may not be unless they find another employee to sign on the line.
    Yet, as this attorney states on his blog in reference to the IT lawsuits:

    In this situation, is it any wonder that, increasingly, some California companies are moving jobs across the border to work in other states where employees don’t have to be paid special overtime rates?
    Just like the ridiculously high workers’ compensation rates hurt job creation in California several years ago, the overtime pay requirements are doing the same thing in the IT industry.

  • I went through the legal code and posted up some data over on my site. The summary should have posted here on the 19th but didn’t.

  • Charles - thanks a ton for the extra info.

    You’re comment posted on the 19th was automatically dumped into my spam folder by Akismet - I didn’t even notice (it got lost with the other 63,808 spam messages I got that day).

    I tracked it down and re-posted it for you. Thanks for the research!

  • Thanks Monkey,

    It’s such a complex issue and so worthy of true discussion.

    As a business owner I sympathize with the leadership team at Sun. As a worker bee in software environments who has dealt with the deadline issues and the effect it can have on real life (parenting, let alone single parenting, to mention one) I sympathize equally with the tech writers.

    My strategy as posted above would be to simplify the procedures that the technical writing team has in order to provide better quality of life for such a busy environment.

    Bottom line for employers - while you can’t make everyone happy, by making your work environment better than anyone else’s around, salary versus hourly becomes a non-issue.

  • what is the latest on the Sun vs. tech writer(s) lawsuit? is there any court date in sight? i ask because my current employer refuses to grant me exempt status (although i have been classified exempt for ALL “perm” tech writing jobs i’ve held for the past 12 years) until this lawsuit plays itself out. this means that, although i’m highly compensated, i have to clock in and out like those making minimum wage. and should i happen to work less than a strict 40-hour week, my pay is docked. also, i’m not allowed to make up time or work overtime. do i have any recourse?

  • sunegurl - a quick Google News search reveals an article that says a judge has “certified” it as class action. I’m not a lawyer, but I take it this means that the right to call it “class action” has been granted, allowing other plantiffs to join in.

    I’m certain that the resolution for this is months, if not years, away.

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