Electronic Arts promises workplace change

In wake of charges of abusive work schedules, a company memo admits that "there are things we just need to fix."

Electronic Arts, the computer game giant accused of punishing work hours, sent a memo to employees this week admitting a problem and promising workplace reforms.

"As much as I don't like what's been said about our company and our industry, I recognize that at the heart of the matter is a core truth: The work is getting harder, the tasks are more complex, and the hours needed to accomplish them have become a burden," Rusty Rueff, the company's executive vice president of human resources, told employees in a memo Tuesday. "We haven't yet cracked the code on how to fully minimize the crunches in the development and production process. Net, there are things we just need to fix."

Rusty Rueff
EVP of human resources,
Electronic Arts

A copy of the memo was seen by CNET News.com. EA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the changes discussed in the memo is one that indirectly addresses a lawsuit claiming that EA has failed to pay proper overtime wages to some workers. Rueff said the company is looking at reclassifying some jobs to be eligible for overtime pay.

"We have resisted this in the past--not because we don't want to pay overtime but because we believe that the wage and hour laws have not kept pace with the kind of work done at technology companies, the kind of employees those companies attract and the kind of compensation packages their employees prefer," the memo stated.

EA has been blasted in recent weeks by accusations that it subjects some of its workers to grueling hours--such as 80-hour weeks for months on end. Exhausting work demands are part of the game industry in general and have long been associated with software development overall. But in the wake of an anonymous Web log posting by an EA employee's fiancee, game developers have been speaking out, effectively saying companies are pushing workers too far.

In July, an EA employee filed a lawsuit claiming that the company improperly classified image production employees as exempt from California overtime laws.

Among other things, the suit asserts that image production employees "do not customarily and regularly exercise discretion and independent judgment," part of the state's test for determining a "professional" exemption.

EA has declined to comment on the suit. But Rueff's memo appeared to respond to it, somewhat. "We consider our artists to be 'creative' people and our engineers to be 'skilled' professionals who relish flexibility, but others use the outdated wage and hour laws to argue in favor of a work force that is paid hourly, like more traditional industries, and conforming to set schedules," he wrote. "But we can't wait for the legislative process to catch up, so we're forced to look at making some changes to exempt and nonexempt classifications beginning in April."

Rueff's memo laid out other steps addressing work conditions. For example, EA has started a project to improve the development process. It aims, among other things, to "lessen the number of late-in-the-process changes, fire drills and crunches."

Rueff also noted that EA stands out as a giant in the field, with more than 5,000 employees. "We're doing something that no one has ever done before: No entertainment software company has ever scaled to this size," he wrote.

One EA software developer doubted that real change would come of the memo. He also took issue with the way Rueff discussed overtime laws. "It didn't make sense," said the employee, who is looking to leave the company. "It made it seem like they were trying to say they weren't breaking the law."

Another EA employee said he hoped conditions will improve but suggested that the company and its game developers are at fundamental odds.

The memo "shows exactly where the executives' priorities are. Their overriding focus is to build the largest entertainment company in the world, whereas most of the developers working for them (at least the ones I work with) simply want to make great games," the employee wrote in an e-mail. "Until the execs change their focus to making great games (unlikely) or the developers change their focus to expanding the organization (really unlikely), there's always going to be some significant personnel issues within EA."

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