February 26, 2010

South Portlander sues Prudential, alleging unpaid overtime

TREVOR MAXWELL

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A South Portland woman is suing Prudential Insurance Co. of America, claiming that the company required her and other employees to work overtime without pay.

Michelle Prescott seeks back pay for herself and possibly hundreds of other disability claims handlers employed by Prudential in Maine and nationwide. She hopes the action will improve the work environment in the company's Portland offices.

Prescott said she often worked more than 50 hours per week during the past few years but was paid for only 37½ hours, and her requests for overtime pay were consistently denied.

Prescott said she had to put in the extra time to meet the numbers demanded by management. Claims handlers who didn't meet those numbers were subject to reprimands and subpar performance reviews.

''They put the bar higher and higher, but didn't make it possible to attain those goals,'' Prescott said in an interview last week. ''I got to the point where I said, 'I can't take this anymore.'''

The lawsuit alleges that Prudential violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and Maine's wage-and-hour law.

''Prudential has willfully engaged in a pattern and practice of unlawful conduct by declining to record and pay for all of the time it requires or permits its disability claims handlers to work,'' lawyers Nicholas Bull of Portland and Timothy Fleming of Washington, D.C., wrote in the complaint.

In Prudential's answer, lawyers said the company has not violated any federal or state labor laws, and Prescott isn't entitled to any damages. Prudential seeks to have the case dismissed.

''Prudential denies that it has engaged in any unlawful conduct in relation to the payment of the plaintiff or any other person similarly situated,'' wrote attorney Robert Riordan of Alston & Bird LLP in Atlanta.

The lawsuit was filed in July in U.S. District Court in Portland. Within the next month or so, the lawyers expect to ask Magistrate Judge John Rich to preliminarily certify the case as a collective action.

In a collective action -- unlike in a class-action lawsuit -- eligible participants must sign paperwork to get involved. Another key difference is that in a collective action, those who opt in are eligible to recover the full amount of their losses, not just a fraction of a larger judgment.

The lawsuit seeks compensation for disability claims handlers who worked for Prudential in Maine during the last six years. For claims handlers outside of Maine, the lawsuit seeks compensation for those employed by Prudential in the last three years.

''These cases usually start out with one person who has had enough and is taking that courageous first step,'' Fleming said. ''That person in this case is Michelle Prescott.''

Fleming was one of the lawyers who represented workers at Barber Foods Inc. in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. The court ruled unanimously that the workers should be paid for the time it takes them to put on protective clothing and walk to their jobs.

Next to Hartford, Conn., greater Portland is the nation's hub of disability claims handling, Prescott said. Several large firms, including Prudential, Unum and Aetna, employ hundreds of workers in claims management centers here.

Prescott earned a degree in science and considered nursing school before entering the insurance field. She first worked as a claims handler in 1997 and worked for two other companies before joining Prudential in December of 2006.

At the beginning, Prescott says, the atmosphere at Prudential was positive and she had a great experience. But managers began demanding more and more out of employees, in the same amount of time, she said.

To meet the goals and to maintain her stellar employment record, Prescott routinely worked at home. The Prudential computer system allowed employees to work remotely anytime from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Prescott, a single mother, says she got to the point where she rarely interacted with her teenage son and daughter.

''They all know I was just working until I dropped,'' she said. ''I haven't seen my friends in like nearly two years.''

Prescott contacted Bull in March. She remains employed by Prudential but is on a temporary leave of absence. Her most recent pay rate was $25 an hour.

Bull said the lawsuit is all about fair pay for the work.

''These employees are hardworking people,'' he said. ''They are talented, conscientious, and they deserve to be paid according to the dictates of our state and federal laws.''

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

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