Trash truck

Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation managers were so worried about bad publicity that they enacted rules nine years ago prohibiting garbage truck drivers from napping in their rigs during their 30-minute breaks. The rules also barred drivers from meeting more than one colleague for lunch, lest the sight of several trash trucks parked outside a diner would raise eyebrows. But now that policy has backfired. (Los Angeles Times / February 13, 2014)

It's the headline or TV news item that public officials dread: City workers sleeping on the job! Garbage truck drivers dining on the public dime! Public workers wasting your taxpayer dollars!

Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation managers were so worried about bad publicity that they enacted rules nine years ago prohibiting garbage truck drivers from napping in their rigs during their 30-minute breaks. The rules also barred drivers from meeting more than one colleague for lunch, lest the sight of several trash trucks parked outside a diner raise eyebrows. (Another stated concern was, more practically, that the collective weight of multiple trucks would damage a parking lot.)

But now that policy has backfired. The drivers sued, arguing — persuasively — that the bureau's rules put inappropriate limits on how workers could use their free time, effectively requiring them to remain "on duty" during their unpaid breaks. The drivers won their class-action lawsuit, and a court rightly concluded that they should be compensated retroactively for the time. After the decision was upheld on appeal, the California Supreme Court refused to reconsider it. This week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to settle the case and approved a $26-million payout to the drivers — essentially back pay to more than 1,000 drivers for nine years of 30-minute meal breaks.

The courts were correct. Off-duty workers have a right to be just that — off duty. They should be able do just about anything they want on their unpaid break time, as long they're not taking garbage trucks on joy rides or breaking the law. If city managers are so concerned that members of the public will assume the worst, why not give drivers placards that say "Off duty" so they can power nap without arousing (much) suspicion? Or require that drivers park their rigs in safe, appropriate locations rather than ban them from congregating for lunch?

Let's face it: The public is quick to judge public employees based on the long-standing myth of the overpaid, underworked government bureaucrat, a narrative that has always been largely unfair but is even more unrealistic after budget cuts have dramatically reduced the size of the city workforce. And the news media love to hype a good public-worker-behaving-badly story. Nevertheless, the fear of bad PR does not justify managers infringing on workers' rights to spend their free time as they wish.