Have you ever dialed 0 for operator or 411 for information and gotten a telephone operator who sounded rude, impatient or downright nasty?
Part of the reason may be that when you reach out to touch someone by telephone, the operator is under orders to get rid of you as soon as possible.
The labor union representing more than 1,300 telephone operators in metropolitan Washington says the reason they often sound so frazzled is that they face suspension or demotion by the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. if they don't get you off the line within an average of 22 to 34 seconds.
"The public perceives operators to be rude, and they are often not aware that operators work under tremendous time constraints," said Blondell Stewart-Ware, an 18-year veteran operator who is president of Local 2300 of the Communication Workers of America.
The CWA local, representing 1,800 C&P employes, plans to step up a recent leaflet and publicity effort to protest the phone company's computer-monitored "actual work time" (AWT) system, started three years ago.
The effort was prompted, Stewart-Ware said, primarily by several recent cases in which employes with poor AWTs were suspended or demoted.
A C&P spokesman said yesterday that AWT is "a way to measure efficiency. We don't cause operators to be abrupt to customers. We ask them to get in and out of the call quickly, so there is less chance that a customer has to wait."
Moreover, the spokesman said, AWT alone is not used as a basis for discipline. "AWT can be a factor," he said, but supervisors consider other things such as attendance and "overall quality of performance" to decide whether to discipline operators.
AWT "puts tremendous pressure on operators," Stewart-Ware said. "Operators want to give good service. They don't like the image the public has of them, and we feel that if the public could understand and call the phone company, the company would relent."
Last month, a 54-year-old operator, Doris Craig, was awarded a pewter vase and a cake to celebrate her 20th year of service, but was demoted the next week to a mail room job at a pay cut of about $2,500, Stewart-Ware said.
"I tried to improve my AWT," Craig said in an interview. "I enjoyed my work through the years. I cared for my job. I ran the Sunshine Club in the office."
Craig started with C&P in the era of the "cord-board" switchboard that has since been replaced by the computerized board enabling the phone company to monitor telephone traffic and measure its overall needs--as well as AWTs.
"I don't know how the other girls do it," Craig said. "I was trained on the old cord-board, when we gave service to people . . . and it was hard to break the habit."
Stewart-Ware said that use of the AWT system has prompted a substantial number of senior operators, whose salary is $379 weekly, to retire.
Operators are measured against their co-workers within each office to determine their efficiency, the C&P spokesman said. The union said that in 14 regional offices the AWT ranges as low as 22 seconds for directory assistance and as high as 34 seconds for "0" operators.
The C&P spokesman would not comment on individual cases, but stressed that if an operator is a "very good dependable worker who really does the job, there would probably be ample time to improve, without discipline . . . . We are concerned with quality and efficiency."