While much of the criticism surrounding the Indiana Department of Child Services has centered on workers' caseloads, a recent lawsuit indicates other work conditions also could be affecting the smooth running of the agency.
Arlene Nunez, of East Chicago, and Veronica Martinez, of Valparaiso, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court last month seeking damages for unpaid overtime and alleging unfair labor practices.
The women work out of the Gary office of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Among the allegations are that Martinez and Nunez worked through lunches, for which they are supposed to clock out. Supervisors told the women who complained about working through their lunches, "Don't even bring it up," the lawsuit stated.
The women also claim supervisors deducted time they worked in excess of the 40-hour work week and credited the hours for the next work week instead of paying the women overtime, according to court records. The women also allege they had to respond to emergency calls, write reports and conduct investigations outside of the time they were paid to work.
Attorney Adam Sedia, representing Nunez and Martinez, said he believes the issues raised in the lawsuit are not just a problem within the Gary office but also a statewide problem.
"These problems go back well over three years," Sedia said. "The specifics may have changed here and there, but the general problems have been a constant."
Ellen Kossek, a professor at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management, said some of the issues raised in the lawsuit by the caseworkers reflect larger problems many U.S. employees are facing. However, she said some of the issues don't seem to merit a lawsuit.
Kossek said the issue about working through a lunch break does not seem to qualify for a lawsuit. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's website, federal law does not require paid lunch or coffee breaks for anyone. The law does call for short breaks between five and 20 minutes to be paid.
She also said, depending on how the workers are classified and paid, some employers don't have to compensate for overtime.
Kossek said the workers' complaints about their on-call duties touches on murky issues for employers. She said employers generally don't have to pay employees who are considered on-call but who can still go about doing personal activities like mowing their lawn.
However, if employees can't engage in personal activities, then employers should pay their workers.
She said issues surrounding on-call pay compensation aren't unique to the Indiana Department of Child Services.
"Work schedules are the next big employment issue to figure out," she said. "Part of it is driven by the economy and under-staffing." Kossek said some of the allegations made in the lawsuit sound like it could lead employees to burn out.
According to the 2013 report from the Indiana Department of Child Services Ombudsman Bureau, staff turnover was one reason cited for an increase in caseloads last year. The state did appropriate funding for 136 additional family case managers and 75 family case manager supervisors.
According to the suit, Nunez and Martinez said the demands of work duties prevented them from receiving five hours of continuous sleep.
Kossek said studies have long indicated there are many long-term health problems associated with lack of sleep. She said the Department of Child Services could consider a required minimum rest period like the Federal Aviation Administration did for pilots.
According to the FAA's website, pilots are now required to have a 10-hour minimum rest period in which a pilot could get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Kossek said caseworkers aren't flying airplanes, but they are driving across counties and dealing with difficult situations.
"They have to have predictable time-off," she said. "It will improve public safety and their ability to respond to these challenging situations."