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Drug reps pursue suits over long hours

Plaintiffs say their work changed but their overtime-exempt status didn't. Companies say they followed the law.

December 28, 2006|Dave Collins | Associated Press

HARTFORD, CONN. — Susan Schaefer LaRose quit her sales job in May after 18 years with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., frustrated by long workweeks that frequently encroached on weekends and vacations.

And then she sued.

Her lawsuit, part of a series of class-action claims filed last month against nine major drug companies, seeks tens of millions of dollars in back pay for thousands of drug company salespeople across the country.

"I was told when I started with Eli Lilly that I was exempt from overtime," said Schaefer LaRose, a 50-year-old mother of two from Chittenango, N.Y. "I figured they were the large employer and I never thought to question it."

The lawsuits, filed in California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, are the latest in a series of mass tort claims seeking overtime pay from U.S. businesses in recent years. IBM Corp. last month agreed to pay $65 million to 32,000 technology workers who claimed that their jobs were wrongly classified as overtime-exempt.

The pharmaceutical company lawsuits seek overtime wages dating back two to six years, under federal and state statutes of limitations. Other companies affected are Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., AstraZeneca, Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Amgen Inc., Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer.

Some of the companies deny the allegations, and others are reviewing the lawsuits before commenting.

Abby Baron, a spokeswoman for AstraZeneca, said her company adhered to all labor laws.

Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins said the company would vigorously contest the lawsuit.

In Schaefer LaRose's case, federal labor law allows outside sales forces to be exempt from overtime pay in recognition of the unique abilities offered by a skilled sales staff. Schaefer LaRose said she drew on her skills, using her discretion in how she pitched the company's products to doctors when she started with Lilly in 1988.

But within a decade, drug companies began carefully scripting sales pitches for fear of competitors' lawsuits or scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration.

"They no longer had that freedom for what the exemption was designed," said New York attorney Charles Joseph, who brought several of the lawsuits. "The job has changed, and it has changed for the worse."

Schaefer LaRose said her 45-hour workweeks began lengthening as cellphones and e-mail use became more prevalent. She also said Lilly did not allow sales reps to log onto the company's computer system between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., prime hours for calling doctors, which forces reps to do reports on nights and weekends.

Lilly spokesman Phil Belt said the company would not respond to Schaefer LaRose's allegations because of the pending lawsuit. But he said the company valued its employees and compensated them in accordance with all laws and regulations.

Not all sales reps support the lawsuits.

Anthony DeMeis, a co-founder of the Pharmaceutical Representative Society of New York, said it was unfortunate that some people were looking for ways to get more money from their employers.

He said he didn't know of many other jobs that offer college grads $60,000 to $80,000 a year with a free car and a free cellphone.

"Everyone I know who does their job well works 60 or more hours a week," DeMeis said.

"The harder you work, the more work you make for yourself. I think they're getting paid for overtime, through the bonuses they're getting."

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