If you’re a technical writer in California, you should know about an amendment to the labor code that requires employers to classify us as non-exempt employees. Non-exempt means, among other things, that you are an hourly employee with a time card. So far, only a handful of companies have reclassified their writers, but considering that the labor code stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that tech writers are non-exempt, we have to assume that many more companies will follow.
The question is: do technical writers WANT to be classified as hourly employees? Is punching in and punching out even realistic for writing professionals who work closely with engineers and project managers who are not on the clock?
The small sample of writers with whom I’ve spoken abhor the amendment and are deeply unhappy with the new classification. As if technical writers don’t already have trouble getting respect in the computer industry, being placed in the non-exempt category of workers implies that we aren’t professionals.
According to the revised labor code, we are no longer employees whose “work … is intellectual or creative and that requires the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.” We aren’t “primarily engaged in duties that consist of … The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs”, nor are we “highly skilled and … proficient in the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized information to computer systems analysis, programming, or software engineering.”
Certainly, being non-exempt isn’t all bad. You’ll no longer be working for free if your project requires you to stay in the office for 70 hours a week. But your boss must approve of the overtime. And what happens during down times, between releases, when you’re ramping up and your hours are well below 70 or barely 40?
Many people believe that the amendment to the labor code is a reaction to the lawsuits brought by “incorrectly classified” employees whose work is NOT considered highly skilled who were forced to put in long hours doing rote tasks in the computer industry. A lawsuit filed by a Sun employee is probably one of the reasons the amendment calls out technical writers specifically as non-exempt.
But our work is not rote. Our work does require discretion, creativity, and higher learning. We aren’t simply transcribing specs written by engineers. We aren’t documenting how to set up your VCR. If this amendment does not suit the majority of technical writers in California, we need to do something. If we want to maintain our professional status, we need to protest this amendment.