Wacker Siltronic faces uniform suit

Mark A. DeSorbo

Twenty-five workers have joined plaintiff, claiming the fab failed to pay them for time spent in change room

PORTLAND, OR—Michael Ballaris never thought much of changing out of his street clothes to put on a uniform, shoes and then a bunny suit before punching in for his shift at Wacker Siltronic Corp.

Water-cooler chats may spark now that a former employee of Wacker Siltronic Corp. (Portland, OR) has filed a lawsuit that says the fab failed to pay him for the time he spent changing in and out of plant uniforms and cleanroom garments. At least 25 people have joined Michael Ballaris in the case againt Wacker. Photo: Courtesy of TSMC Co. (Hsin Chu, Taiwan).
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That was, of course, until he took a job at Fujitsu Microelectronics in nearby Gresham, where he learned that the chipmaker paid him to gown up. “When I started at Fujitsu, I just asked somebody one day when we started getting paid, and that person told me the laws say that they have to pay us from the time we arrive to start gowning,” Ballaris told CleanRooms.

At the time of this report, the veteran cleanroom end-user had just lost his job at Fujitsu in a recent round of layoffs, but was still moving forward with a lawsuit that seeks compensation from Wacker.

In fact, at least 25 people have joined Ballaris in suing Wacker, claiming the fab failed to pay them for the time they spent changing in and out of plant uniforms and cleanroom garments.

Lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court and Multnomah County Circuit Court accuse Wacker of violating federal and state labor laws and seek undisclosed amounts of overtime and penalty wages as well as fines against Wacker.

In December, The Oregonian newspaper reported that other workers began joining the suit after U.S. District Court Judge Garr King opened the federal case in August to employees who had worked in Wacker's Fab-2, between November 1997 and November 2000.

A Wacker spokesman says the lawsuit has no merit, the fab has always compensated employees fairly and beyond the requirements of the law.

“We have not violated any state or federal laws,” spokesman Tom Fahey says. “We believe we will be exonerated in this. A judge has allowed a collective action to be formed, but he has not made a legal ruling on the case.”

The Oregonian reported that Wacker agreed to expand its defined work schedule by 25 minutes to include uniform and shift briefings after it was investigated by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Fahey, however, called the report “completely inaccurate.”

The law
Christie Hammond, administrator of the Oregon labor bureau's Wage and Hour Division, indicated that Wacker did change its compensation to include gowning to resolve the issue after an investigation in January 2001.

According to Oregon Administrative Rules, “preparatory and concluding activities are considered hours worked if the activities performed by the employee are an integral and indispensable part of a principal activity for which he/she is employed.”

As an example, the bureau cites that agricultural workers must dress in protective clothing and thoroughly clean up after their work with or around pesticides.

“The time spent in these activities is work time,” the law says. “These rules are applicable even where there exists a custom, contract or agreement not to pay for the time spent in such activity. Our state regulation specifically says that gowning is compensable time,” Hammond adds.

Fahey, however, still says that Wacker does not consider the lawsuit to be an issue. “We feel that this will go away,” he adds. “We see it as a non-story.”

No stranger to gowning
The 36-year-old Ballaris, who worked for Wacker for 10 years, says he spent 40 minutes of unpaid time every workday, changing in and out of Wacker's two required suits, and it wasn't until a year after he left that he decided to sue.

He says his 12-hour shift usually began at 7 p.m., but Wacker required him to be in the company locker room by 6:35 p.m. By arriving 25 minutes early for a shift, he had time to change out of his street clothes into the plant uniform and shoes, which cannot be worn outside the building. He then walked to another changing room to don the bunny suit, hood and gloves.

Ballaris says he then had to be on the floor of the ISO Class 4 cleanroom for a shift change briefing by 6:50 p.m. Once his shift as an operator in the etch area was over, he spent another 15 minutes disrobing.

During his shift, he was also allowed two 40 minute breaks, one of which he was paid for. “If you wanted to go and get something to eat, you had 20 minutes to do it once you got into your street clothes,” he says. “I had always known I wasn't getting paid. They said they gave us extra long breaks for any unpaid time that it took to get into the bunny suit.”

About 400 other Wacker employees, Ballaris claims, worked similar schedules.

Man of cloth perplexed
Throughout his many years working in the garment and semiconductor industries, Robert Spector, a member of the CleanRooms Editorial Advisory Board, has never heard of such a case.

“At Prudential, people punch in and then they go change,” says Spector, who works as director of sales at Prudential Cleanrooms Services, an Irvine, CA-based processor of cleanroom garments and consumables. “A lot of the bigger companies do not have time clocks. Personnel had to be at their assigned workstation at the start of the shift.”

Based on what Ballaris says, Spector believes Ballaris may have been compensated through the paid break.

“Let's say that he left for lunch at 11:30 a.m. He would be out of his apparel and ready to go eat by 11:45 a.m.,” he says. “It has to take him the same amount of time before and after lunch as it is taking before the shift starts and before it ends. Were they docking him? Doesn't sound like it. Sounds like he did not get compensated pre- and post-shift, but that unpaid time was equalized at pre- and post-lunch.”

Spector also pondered how much time it takes a veteran to don a bunny suit. “I haven't done it in a while, but I think I could put a coverall, a hood and boots on inside of five minutes easily,” Spector says. “And that's doing everything right. Plus, after doing it a while, it becomes automatic.”


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