Bad back: Can he refuse a lifting chore?

Maintenance Foreman Foster Perkins wasn't entirely displeased when Utility Worker Vince Borelli refused an order to stack several 40-lb electrical units on a 5-ft-high shelf. "My back's been acting up," Borelli explained.
By Raymond Dreyfack July 1, 1998

Maintenance Foreman Foster Perkins wasn’t entirely displeased when Utility Worker Vince Borelli refused an order to stack several 40-lb electrical units on a 5-ft-high shelf.

“My back’s been acting up,” Borelli explained. “This assignment could get me in trouble.”

Perkins didn’t believe him. On top of that, Borelli was a marginal worker with a poor attitude at best. Perkins figured, this could be just the opportunity he needed to get rid of him.

“Bad back! That’s the most popular excuse I know to get out of work,” the foreman replied.

“You don’t have to take my word for it; I can get you a note from my doctor. I’m under treatment for my back.”

“I don’t have time to argue with you,” Perkins said. “Either do what you’re told, or clock out and take the consequences.”

“What consequences?”

“Figure it out for yourself. Failing to follow an order is insubordination. It could cost you your job.”

Borelli decided his health was more important than his job. He persisted in his refusal to lift the motors, and clocked out as he had been instructed.

Perkins returned to his desk and typed up a termination notice.

Question : How do you rate Perkins’ chances of getting away with firing Borelli for insubordination?

Stryker’s decision: When the foreman presented the notice to his boss for approval, Plant Engineer Herman Stryker asked, “What effort did you make to check Borelli’s contention that he has a back problem? Did you send him to the nurse?”

“No. I didn’t believe him for a minute. He’s a lousy worker and lazy in the bargain. Back trouble is the standard excuse some of these guys use to get out of jobs they don’t like.”

“That may be so in this case. On the other hand, you may be wrong. If Borelli does have a legitimate back problem, his refusal to lift heavy units is reasonable and sensible. Keep in mind too that the quality of his work performance and attitude isn’t the issue in this case. Your first responsibility is the safety and well-being of your people. It was your obligation to determine as best you can whether or not Borelli’s health claim was valid. If it is, he’s not guilty of insubordination. If you wish to fire him for unsatisfactory performance, this must be the basis of your termination notice.”