EA Settlement May Not Curb Long Hours in Game Industry

October 25, 2005

Controversy over long hours in the computer game world is far from over even though game maker Electronic Arts recently agreed to pay $15.6 million to settle an overtime lawsuit brought by graphic artists.

The settlement agreement, announced early this month, covers just one of several lawsuits alleging that companies in the burgeoning game industry have broken overtime rules. There’s another suit outstanding against EA brought by a computer programmer, a similar suit leveled by a programmer against Vivendi Universal Games, and a case against Sony Computer Entertainment America brought by an image production worker.

All those lawsuits were filed in California, where overtime rules are stricter than federal law. Yet another case against EA was filed earlier this year by a computer graphic artist in Florida.

The suits that are focused on programmers are probably more certain to result in a payout for the plaintiffs, says Tom Buscaglia, an attorney representing game development firms. Arguing that computer graphic artists are eligible for overtime is “a more difficult case to litigate because of the subjective nature of the class,” he says. Graphic artists making high-level decisions could meet California’s test for exemption to overtime pay.

The settlement covers about 620 workers, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case. As part of the pact, EA agreed to reclassify about 200 entry-level artists across the U.S. as eligible for overtime pay. Those workers are to receive a one-time grant of restricted company stock but no longer get stock options or bonuses. The agreement must by approved by a California court.

Known for titles such as its Madden NFL football franchise, EA is a titan in the computer and video game industry, with revenue of $3.1 billion for the year that ended March 31.

The industry overall has seen revenue rise from $6 billion in 2000 to $7.3 billion last year. It has weathered growing pains around work hours. About a year ago, the game world was rocked by claims that the industry amounted to a high-tech sweatshop, with much of the criticism sparked by an essay by the fiancée of an EA employee. She blasted the company for pushing a team of workers to put in 85-hour weeks.

A survey last year by the International Game Developers Association backed up the anecdotal complaints about “crunch” time, which refers to unusually long hours before deadlines. “Crunch time is omnipresent, during which respondents work 65 to 80 hours a week,” the association said. “Overtime is often uncompensated.”

Jason Della Rocca, the game developer association’s executive director, says the settlement should help deter brutal work hours in the field. “It puts a cost on top of abusive labor practices,” he says.

But Buscaglia suggests the issue is far from settled. Even if companies start paying premium wages for long hours, he’s not sure they’ll stop forcing workers to put in exhausting shifts—a practice he believes hurts the industry. “So your employer pays you overtime, but still requires you to work 80 hours a week,” Buscaglia says. “How long can you stand the heat?”

Ed Frauenheim