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In a case that may turn on whether TV reporters are “creative” professionals, a news reporter at WFOR-Channel 4 in Miami and Fort Lauderdale has sued the station for allegedly violating federal labor law by refusing to pay him overtime. John “Jack” Hambrick III, son of former Channel 4 anchor John Hambrick Sr., filed the suit June 25 in U.S. District Court in Miami. Named as defendants are CBS Broadcasting Inc., which owns and operates the station, station vice president and general manager Steve Mauldin, and news director Shannon High. Hambrick still works at the station and appears on air. In his suit, Hambrick, who has worked at WFOR as a general assignment reporter for three and a half years, claims that he logged “numerous hours for which defendants failed to properly keep records as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.” The suit also alleges that the defendants failed to pay Hambrick overtime wages for hours worked as required by the fair labor act, and that they unlawfully required him to accept compensatory time off in lieu of overtime wages. The law requires overtime to be paid in cash, at a rate of time and a half for each hour worked over and above 40 hours per week. The suit does not specify how much overtime pay Hambrick believes he’s entitled to. He’s seeking actual and compensatory damages for unpaid overtime compensation with interest, an equal amount of liquidated damages, and attorneys fees and legal costs. The station has not yet responded to the suit. Neither Hambrick nor his attorney, Pompano Beach, Fla., solo practitioner Tony Bogdan, would comment for this article. But High says it’s standard policy at her station that only certain employees like news writers and camera operators are eligible for overtime pay. On-air reporters instead receive compensatory time off, she says. That’s because they are salaried employees and have highly unpredictable work schedules compared with other lower level positions at the station, she explains. News anchors, producers and managers also do not receive overtime, she says. High also disputes the allegation that Hambrick’s hours were not properly recorded. She says all reporters are responsible for filling out their own time sheets. WFOR’s overtime policy was established in 1994 after the U.S. Department of Labor performed a “routine” audit of the station, High says. In addition, she says, all reporters’ contracts with the station clearly state that compensatory time may be given in lieu of overtime wages. Other TV journalists interviewed for this article, and agents who represent TV reporters, say the policy of awarding comp time rather than overtime pay is common in the industry. The leading federal court decision on this issue supports TV news reporters’ demands to be paid overtime. In 1990, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that 19 general assignment reporters, producers, directors and assignment editors at KDFW-TV in Dallas were entitled to overtime. The court held that they were “nonprofessional” employees who were not exempt from the overtime rules of the fair labor act. They were awarded a total of $350,000. Mark Rothstein, a labor law professor at the University of Houston, says the distinction between professional and nonprofessional employees is key. Nonprofessional employees, he says, are defined as those whose jobs require “skill and diligence,” but not “originality” or “creativity.” That puts broadcast journalists in an uncomfortable position. “Reporters may not want to make the argument that they aren’t professionals at a cocktail party, but they do in court,” Rothstein says. As for how hours are recorded, Rothstein says that under the fair labor act, employers can allow their employees to keep track of the hours they work, as long as the employer fills out the paperwork required by the Department of Labor. Former WFOR reporters and agents for TV reporters say that most local broadcast journalists readily accept overtime policies awarding comp time rather than overtime pay. For one thing, being a TV reporter is a high-stress job, and many reporters are happy to take the time off. But another factor is that competition for on-air reporting jobs in major markets like South Florida is intense, and few reporters are willing to battle management over the issue and risk losing their job. “There are a hundred reporters out there willing to do your job, and for cheaper,” says Pam Pulner, a Washington, D.C.-based agent who represents scores of TV journalists. “It’s something to keep in mind.” One former Channel 4 reporter, who did not want to be identified, says the comp time system is “fair” simply because “that’s what most stations do.” The reporter also recalls filling out her own time sheet. Pulner says that even though there are discrepancies between the requirements of federal law and the overtime provisions in reporters’ contracts, she recommends that her clients accept comp time in lieu of overtime pay — as long as the time off is actually provided. Pulner says that many reporters who do receive overtime do so only because they successfully negotiated those terms into their contract. Reporters often are lucky to receive any kind of compensation for the additional hours they put in, she says. “In my experience, reporters are glad to get their compensatory time instead of overtime,” Pulner says, “because a lot of other stations won’t offer [comp time] either.” Still, the 5th Circuit ruling has led to a growing consensus that TV news reporters are entitled to overtime pay, and that the policies of many stations are unlawful, Rothstein says. The only reason stations get away with using comp time in lieu of overtime pay, Rothstein contends, is that few reporters are willing to take their employers to court. “If no one complains,” he says, “there’s no violation.”

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