In January, InfoCision Management Corp. was named “One of America’s Top 150 Workplaces” by an organization called WorkplaceDynamics.
At least 318 people who were part of a lawsuit against the Bath Township telemarketing company might disagree.
The class-action lawsuit charged InfoCision with “failing to pay its hourly, non-exempt employees … minimum wages and overtime compensation in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
The suit was settled quietly last year before it went to trial.
Filed by two Cleveland law firms, the case was dismissed “subject to a confidential settlement agreement,” said Anthony Lazzaro, one of the lead attorneys, via email.
However, the names of all 318 plaintiffs are available through public court records, and the Beacon Journal contacted dozens of the people listed.
The folks who sued were employees who worked in their own homes, a segment of the InfoCision workforce that has grown steadily in recent years.
Cleveland resident Christine Hicks, who received $300 in back pay through the lawsuit, worked six months as a “Work at Home Communicator” before she quit.
“I was spending hours and hours on the phone, but yet I wasn’t getting paid for it,” she said. “I wasn’t even getting paid a quarter of the amount of time I was on the phone working for them. I’m not going to work for free.”
Work-at-home employees said that even when they were sitting at their computers with their headsets on, waiting for the automatic dialer to connect them to the next prospective donor, they were not paid unless they were having a conversation.
An indicator light on the screen was green when they were talking and red while they were waiting. They were paid only when the green light was lit, they said.
Because the Fair Labor Standards Act has a three-year statute of limitations on pay violations, only employees who worked for the company between Jan. 24, 2008, and Jan. 24, 2011, were eligible to participate in the suit.
InfoCision and its chief of staff, Steve Brubaker, declined repeated requests to talk with the Beacon Journal regarding this story.
Barbara Rivers of Cleveland, who made calls from her home for nearly four years, said she received about $900 in the settlement.
Rivers said she eventually was fired because she refused an “optional” assignment to wake up at 1 a.m. to answer calls for one hour, in addition to her usual shift.
Another former employee who lives in Maple Heights said she worked mainly in the evenings, and “every time, around 7 or 7:30, their system would shut down. It would shut down for about a good hour, and you’re not getting paid for that hour but you’re available, and that’s what happened every night!” said the woman, who spoke on the condition she not be identified.
The lawsuit claimed that, under the “continuous workday rule,” employees should have been paid for all of the activities they performed from the start of their workday until the end, including “follow-up time, logging into and out of their computer, short breaks and time in which they had computer problems.”
While denying that it violated federal law, InfoCision admitted in court documents that the lead plantiff, Marlene Zuccaro of Mentor, “may not have been, in all instances, expressly compensated for ‘follow-up time,’ logging into and out of her computer, ‘short breaks,’ ‘being away from her desk,’ ‘downtime’ and time during which she had computer problems.”
InfoCision also agreed to pay the plantiffs’ legal fees.
But money and working conditions weren’t the only reason employees quit the company.
“The thing that upset me the most [was that we] hammered these people [over the phone],” said Stephanie Ocken of Portsmouth, who collected $1,100 through the lawsuit.
“… Some of these people are so old, and [we] would hassle them and hassle them and hassle them.
“These people did not know that if they said, ‘Take my name off your list,’ we would not call them anymore. If they said, ‘Don’t call me anymore’ or ‘Please stop calling me,’ that wouldn’t work.
“They had to say, ‘Take my name off your list.’ ”
That same story was told repeatedly by former employees — and not just those who worked at home.
The Beacon Journal interviewed an additional 13 current and former employees who have worked inside one of InfoCision’s 26 call centers, including two across the street from each other in Bath and two in Green.
Most of the current and former employees who were interviewed spoke on the condition they not be identified, mainly because InfoCision requires all hires to sign a nondisclosure agreement promising they will not talk about the company publicly even after they leave, regardless of their reason for leaving.
Other former employees are so angry about the company’s practices that they were willing to go on the record.
Among them is Rebecca Ramnytz of Fairlawn, who worked at InfoCision’s call center on the north side of Springside Drive in Bath from August 2010 to December 2011.
Ramnytz was an up-and-comer, starting at $8.25 an hour and hitting $11.25 about a year later. Outgoing and articulate, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Akron, she was a member of the “A” team, one of a handful selected from a group of 30 phone solicitors who were called into meetings with account representatives and asked their opinions on strategy.
But Ramnytz eventually became disgusted by the way management treated the people she was calling and her fellow employees.
The event that finally sent her over the edge involved her request that the company provide a defibrillator for her call center.
One of Ramnytz’s co-workers was a heavyset older woman with a history of heart problems. Ramnytz said that when she asked a supervisor why the call center didn’t have a defibrillator, she was told, “Well, we have one across the street.”
Given the importance of speed in a cardiac emergency, Ramnytz was taken aback by the response. So she talked to one of the human relations managers.
“We don’t need a defibrillator here,” she quoted the manager as saying. “We’ll call the Bath Police Department if we need anything.”
Ramnytz exploded. “You mean [name withheld], who’s been here forever, has this heart problem and we can’t get a defibrillator?”
She said she stormed out the door after ending her rant this way:
“This company that bills itself as one big, happy family can’t get a defibrillator? I’m out of here! I’ve had it with you people!”
Ramnytz and others said longevity among hourly employees rarely is rewarded.
A woman who has worked for InfoCision for more than 20 years (and continues to work at one of the Bath call centers) said she believes the company purposely directed calls away from her and other highly paid employees so they didn’t hit the benchmarks required to maintain their pay level.
“They take the people who have been there 15-18 years — they direct the calls, they control every call that comes out of that dialer — and they little by little cut everyone four, five, six bucks an hour,” she said.
“Some people dropped their health insurance ’cause they could no longer afford it. People have had houses go into foreclosure.”
Cuyahoga Falls resident Bob Nash said job candidates with better resumes, including him, were lured into the company by relatively high hourly rates and then cut back if they didn’t reach certain donation levels. He said he also lost money because of the pay structure, which, in addition to bonuses, calls for a base salary and a “differential” of a couple dollars per hour.
“If you work 15 minutes less than 40 hours in a week, you lose the differential pay for the entire week,” he said. “It’s a substantial amount.”
Franklin Green of Akron said he quit after only four months of work in the political fundraising division because he was not getting bonuses for which he had qualified. Green said he was warned that would happen by fellow employees when he first arrived, but didn’t think that it would happen to him.
“There were bonuses for the [whole] room and team bonuses,” said Franklin, who spent six years as a medical tech in the Coast Guard before coming to InfoCision. “On bonuses for the room, you’d get $40-50, but team bonuses were like $400-$600.
“When [our team] bonused, I got a report back that I did something wrong. … I didn’t understand what happened. My supervisor said, ‘I’ll show you,’ but a couple of months went by and he never did.
“It happened again on a Friday, and I said, ‘Hey, that same stuff happened this morning! I thought you were going to show me about it!’?”
The supervisor became so tongue-tied, Green said, that he couldn’t get a word out.
Green quit a few weeks later. He now works for another local telemarketing firm, where he said he makes more money and is treated “like an adult,” he said.
Not their fault
Other hourly workers said they were penalized for problems that were completely beyond their control.
According to two employees who were working in Bath on a mid-February weekday when computers crashed throughout the building, the “communicators” were told they had to stick around until the computers were fixed — but they wouldn’t be paid.
Ninety minutes later, with the computers still down, the workers were told they could leave if they wanted.
“They used to keep us on the clock for an hour [when that happened], send us to break, put us back on the clock for an hour,” said a longtime hourly employee. “Now they just clock everyone out.”
Multiple employees complained to the Beacon Journal about another unusual policy.
“They … have this wonderful system where you can’t just get up and go to the rest room,” said a current employee. “You have to push a button and wait to be [excused]. Sometimes it can be 15 to 20 minutes or longer. If it gets to be an emergency, people just log off.”
Some of the employees interviewed say the facilities themselves are excellent — including on-site child care, doctors and a fitness center in Bath — and that, on a personal level, employees are generally treated pleasantly.
“The place was nice,” said an ex-employee who spent nine months working in Bath before quitting. “They had a gym with top-notch equipment. The cubicle space was tiny, but it was a comfortable environment.”
Still, amenities and smiles only go so far.
Some current and former employees said that, in addition to the financial issues, the tactics clashed with their consciences.
Among those in that position was a woman from the Dayton area who worked at home for five months in 2010 and received $135 in the settlement.
“These were desperate people,” she said of the customers she dealt with in the Christian division, which raises money for televangelists.
“The more desperate the person was, the more exploitation went on, because these people were stupid. They were evangelical, low-information people calling in.
“They just wanted someone to pray with them. … Sometimes they had life-threatening illnesses. They were losing so much. And we would guarantee that the more they gave, the more that God would give them. It made me sick. It made me sick.”
Over in the nonprofit division, Ramnytz was troubled by similar issues.
“If an elderly donor said to me, ‘I have these horrible medical bills,’ [We would] ask, ‘Well, are your bills more than $10,000?’ [The implication was] if they said ‘less than $10,000,’ they could afford it.”
Even before last year’s investigative report by Bloomberg Markets magazine revealed that InfoCision often keeps 70 to 80 percent of the money it raises for charities — while telling potential donors the percentages were nearly the opposite — some employees suspected that was the case.
Ramnytz was among them. She said that when she questioned the figures that she was told to provide if callers asked, she was told those percentages accurately reflected the total amount of money raised by a particular charity, not the percentage raised through InfoCision. But that distinction was not made to callers, Ramnytz said.
One day, she noticed an enormous jump in her center’s running tally (a figure visible to everyone in the call center) during a short period of time. Fearful a new employee sitting near her had made a huge error, she asked a supervisor about the increase and was told an elderly woman had just taken $20,000 out of her IRA to give to the American Diabetes Association.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, God! Please don’t, lady! It’s a scam!’ And I briefly fantasized about somehow getting her name and her phone number to call her later and tell her about it — tell her to keep her money and give it directly to the Diabetes Association herself.”
These conflicts have weighed heavily on other employees, especially those in the nonprofit division, Ramnytz said.
“Most of the people working with nonprofits were there because they are compassionate human beings [who] wanted to help the world,” Ramnytz said.
Employees occasionally banded together to fight approaches they didn’t like.
During one fundraising campaign for a Christian organization, Ramnytz said the script that her group was assigned to read included denigrating remarks about homosexuals. That presented a particular problem in her group, because one of her male co-workers was gay and “we all knew.”
“The supervisor called that group into the lunchroom and gave them the option of not participating,” she said. “?‘If you’re not comfortable, you don’t have to do it. But you won’t be paid, and there’s no other work for you, so you can leave.’
“They all refused — which was wonderful.”
Given the level of dissatisfaction among these employees, how does InfoCision receive national awards for being a great place to work?
One current employee said she knows.
“[Employees] had to fill out surveys,” she said in March. “They were put in a room with a computer and told to fill it out, with no choice [about whether to participate].
“One of the questions was, ‘Do you feel pressured to fill this out?’ Most of them left it blank.
“It’s supposed to be anonymous, but they [management] can keep track of who’s on that computer at what time.”
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.