Electronic Arts faces overtime lawsuit

Suit underscores common complaints about punishing work conditions in game industry.

Just as a Web log posting this week has triggered a hail of criticism about harsh work conditions in the game industry, game-publishing giant Electronic Arts is being sued for allegedly failing to pay overtime wages.

Attorney Robert Schubert, partner at San Francisco law firm Schubert & Reed, said he has initiated legal proceedings to start a class action lawsuit on behalf of a group of EA employees. "We are seeking unpaid overtime for a good number of (EA) employees who weren't (properly) paid," Schubert said. "EA contends they were exempt. We contend otherwise."

On July 29, Jamie Kirschenbaum filed suit against EA in San Mateo Superior Court. Kirschenbaum is an image production artist, according to one of the attorneys filing the case on his behalf.

An EA spokeswoman on Friday said in an e-mail, "We prefer not to comment on issues involved in litigation."

Word of the lawsuit comes as an anonymous blog posting on Wednesday blasted EA and generated a flurry of complaints about punishing work hours in the industry. "The current mandatory hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.--seven days a week--with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30 p.m.)," read the post, whose author claimed to be the "significant other" of an EA employee.

An EA spokeswoman on Thursday said the company did not normally comment on rumor.

Hundreds of comments followed the initial blog posting, with a number of responders saying EA isn't alone in the way it allegedly treats developers. "White-collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry," one anonymous responder wrote.

The complaints echo findings from a survey earlier this year conducted by the International Game Developers Association. "Crunch time is omnipresent, during which respondents work 65 to 80 hours a week," the association said. "Overtime is often uncompensated."

The lawsuit claims that EA failed to pay overtime compensation required by California law "to its employees whose primary duties are to produce, copy or install images designed by others into video games, using commercial or in-house software computer programs. Such persons include 'animators,' 'modelers,' 'texture artists,' 'lighters,' 'background effects artists' and 'environmental artists.'"

Todd Heyman, another attorney representing Kirschenbaum in the case, said the pay situation for people creating images that go into video games is very different from their counterparts in the movie world. "If you work in the film industry, you get paid overtime," he said. "If you work in the video game industry, you don't--even though the jobs are essentially identical."

To initiate a class action suit, a group must first be certified as a "class" by the court. Schubert also said that until a class is certified by the court, he couldn't say how many individuals would seek to participate in the legal action. "We haven't been certified as a class yet," said Schubert, who admitted that certification "is a big battle."

It appears the lines for that battle are already being drawn. CNET was sent a copy of an e-mail purportedly sent to Electronic Arts employees over the summer alerting them to the lawsuit. The e-mail went so far as to inform them that if they chose to participate in the lawsuit by joining the class--if it were to be certified--there would be no repercussions.

The e-mail, while not yet confirmed to be authentic, frames the dispute between the proposed class and Electronic Arts as follows:

"The lawsuit alleges that EA improperly classified some of its employees (as) exempt from overtime and therefore failed to pay those employees overtime compensation. Plaintiff's action seeks statutory penalties, damages, restitution and injunctive relief...It is EA's position that it treats its employees fairly and lawfully, and that it has properly classified its employees within the meaning of the law...EA will not retaliate against employees for exercising legal rights, including by participating in the proposed class action."

According to Schubert, the most recent action taken by the court was the denial of a motion by EA that would have stopped the class certification process in its tracks.

 

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