When AT&T Communications suspended and fired Maevon Garrett, an 18-year veteran telephone operator, in Baltimore in April, the actions set off shock waves in the 625,000-member phone company union that seemed out of proportion to the issue of terminating a single worker.
Protests about the Garrett case became a rallying cry in leaflets, pickets and demonstrations at union conventions and at AT&T stockholders meetings, and there were top-level talks between the company and the Communications Workers of America -- resulting in her reinstatement the day after her firing.
The reason for the outcry was that Garrett was fired largely because a giant AT&T computer that monitors productivity had spit out the electronic verdict on her: Her "average work time" was 87.3 percent as fast as that of her coworkers. In other words, her AWT, as AT&T calls its, showed that Garrett averaged about 33 seconds per call while the other operators averaged about 30.
The Garrett case is one of the most publicized episodes involving computer monitoring in the workplace, and the protests illustrate the strong passions that the issue arouses.
"This case took on a symbolic significance because AWT is a hated concept nationally, said CWA spokesman Jeffrey Miller. "It hits a real raw nerve" because of resentment about the performance standards and the monitoring process.
AT&T, partly in response to such complaints, has begun changing the way it uses AWT, according to Charles Thornton, AT&T's director of operator services, who said in an interview that the phone company believes that its standards are fair and that its measurements are important in providing efficient and economical service.
And the company believes that service can be just as courteous and efficient under the AWT system as before.
In the days of the telephone "cord-board," the phone company employed what Thornton called the "old green-eye-shade efficiency expert" who, stopwatch and clipboard in hand, would record operators' movements to set standards.
But now that push buttons have replaced cords and calls are computer-routed to the next available operator, the stopwatch, too, has been supplanted by AT&T computer printouts. These reports, posted in the workplace, list operators by code number with their statistics for AWT, WV (work volume) and PS (position seizures, which is AT&T lingo for an incoming call.)
AWT, which is a comparison between the number of calls handled by an operator during any time period and the number handled by his or her coworkers, must be 96 percent if the operator is to be considered "promotable" and 90 percent to be "satisfactory." The vast majority receive satisfactory ratings, the company said.
AWT ratings below 90, however, can result in disciplinary action, as can problems such as absenteeism, tardiness and poor service on the approximately 30 to 50 calls per month that are secretly monitored by supervisors to judge quality of operator performance.
AT&T officials would not discuss the particulars of Garrett's case, but local and national union officials said the only aspect of her job performance deemed unsatisfactory by management was her AWT.
Garrett, 40, who was elected treasurer of the 1,000-member CWA Local 2110 four times, said she could have reduced her AWT easily by cutting customers short, but she said she felt a "moral obligation" that made her consciously resist attempting to cut her AWT.
After 18 years, Garrett said, she considers her work a skilled craft in which she can provide "a wealth of information," but not if she is constantly pressured. "As far as I'm concerned . . . operating is a little like motherhood. A kid may call in an emergency, and you can respond like a parent, telling him to call the emergency room . . . . Nobody teaches you that; it's a thing you absorb over the years," she said.
"But now when people call in, you have to feel really guilty if you stay on the line. That conversation means seconds to you, and you won't make your quota that day," she said. "So you end up withholding things that might help people, and that really does things to you morally that kind of give you a strange feeling.
"Especially with the old people. Some old people call operators just because they need someone to talk to. They will say, 'Honey, could you tell me what time it is, I have to take my medicine.' And then they'll say something like, 'Oh honey, it's so awful to be old. To be alone.' And you might want to say to them, 'Why don't you go out in the sunshine or walk down to the corner?' But you end up saying 'I'm sorry, I can't talk to you.' Or you just stay silent."
Garrett added, "Some new operators will zap you away as fast as they can. I can make any AWT you want me to make . . . . I could sit there for an hour and cancel every call and not get anyone their number, and make out like a fat rat in a cheese factory."
Thorton said AT&T believes that operators can provide both fast and courteous service and that keeping up a good AWT does not mean that operators have to be rude. The company strongly believes in the need to time operators to assess employe efficiency and, using that measure, to determine the number of operators the company needs to handle its call load efficiently at different times of day.
"We have always used time as a measure of cost" since the early days of the Bell system, Thornton said. "Any business I know of typically has productivity standards that the firm and the employe have to meet, and over the years we have tried to reasonably and fairly establish ways to measure" productivity, he added.
Thornton said various industrial studies have shown that when employes receive feedback on their performance, such as AWT data, their productivity almost always increases.
James Irvine, national director of the union's AT&T unit, sees it differently. "The whole world is changing and getting so computerized and dehumanized. It's important to have human beings, and they ought not to be treated like an appendage to the goddamn computer . . . . We think operators are the company's greatest asset."