Human Side – 2002-11-15

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor November 15, 2002

Money matters: Can a new hire be paid more than a veteran?

When Electrician Andy Russo learned how much Electrician Joe Fallon was being paid, he all but blew a fuse. More to the point, he demanded a raise.

“No way,” Maintenance Supervisor Alex Dworkin replied. “Your performance doesn’t merit it.”

“Playing favorites is unfair,” Russo protested.

“That remark isn’t justified. We’re an equal opportunity employer.”

“Real equal,” Russo snapped back, “when a new hire gets paid more in the same job classification than one who’s been on the job three years.”

“Length of service is only one factor in evaluating employees.”

Russo was referring to Charley Davis, a recently hired electrician whose weekly starting wage was $15 more than his own weekly paycheck.

“I’m every bit as qualified as Charley,” Russo groused.

“In your opinion, but not in mine,” his boss replied.

He cited three areas of expertise that were beyond Russo’s competence, jobs to which he wasn’t assigned because he lacked the ability.

“These skills are of critical importance,” Dworkin said, “and they’re in short supply. If I refused Charley the higher rate he would have turned down the job offer.”

“With a little training I’d have the needed skills required,” Russo persisted.

“If I thought you ready for the training you would have received it,” Dworkin countered.

Question: Do you think Russo’s gripe is justified?

Berner’s ruling: Plant Engineer Ben Berner supported Dworkin’s decision. “The starting rate for each job is spelled out in the labor agreement,” he said. “Also spelled out is the company’s right to exceed the starting rate if necessary to compete for the services of skil led and experienced candidates.”

Equal treatment Must the same discipline apply to every employee?

Fair and equal treatment means the same punishment for all employees when an infraction occurs, right? In principle, perhaps, but in practice not always. Another rule worth remembering when discipline seems called for is that every case should be judged on its own merit. Consider a recent case that threatened the tranquility of a New England manufacturing plant.

Litigation against employers often arises as a result of the alleged inconsistent meting out of discipline. Thus, supervisors must take care in responding to employee malfeasance. The idea is to make certain John Doe doesn’t get the book thrown at him for the same screw-up for which Jim Doe got off without punishment. The point to keep in mind is that the screw-up itself isn’t always the only factor involved.

Ed Perkins, one of three instrument repairmen in the maintenance department, dropped a heavy machine, incurring damage of about $500. Upon investigation of the incident, it became apparent to Maintenance Foreman Harry Silver that the mishap was caused by Perkins’s inappropriate behavior. The unit was far too heavy to have been handled by one person. The mechanic should have asked for help.

The worker’s lame excuse was that “no one was on hand at the moment.”

When Silver suspended Perkins for a week, the repairman vehemently objected. “When Joe Freeman dropped a machine last month, more damage resulted, and he received no more than a slap on the wrist.”

Perkins threatened a grievance if the suspension wasn’t revoked.

Question: Is the mechanic’s assertion enough to get him off the hook?

Vincent’s verdict: Plant Engineer George Vincent backed Silver’s decision, and the rationale behind it. As the foreman pointed out, Freeman was a 9-yr veteran with an above-average performance record. Perkins, on the other hand, was a 2-yr employee with a marginal rating, a spotty attendance record, and several infractions written up in his file. “These are all factors to consider when imposing discipline,” Vincent said. “Freeman deserved another chance; Perkins doesn’t.”

Can you schedule vacation during a shutdown?

Maintenance Department Welder Sam Shaeffer and his wife, Eleanor, had been looking forward for months to their vacation slated for the second week of August. Having already taken off the first week in May, it was the only time they had left and arrangements had been made to visit Eleanor’s brother in Wisconsin. Shaeffer knew he had the seniority to ensure his date preference would be approved.

Unfortunately, he had failed to consider the possibility of a plant shutdown in July. With a plant overhaul and construction scheduled for July 15, a notice appeared on the bulletin board announcing the shutdown and declaring that date the start of a vacation week.

“No way!” Shaeffer protested to Maintenance Foreman Carl Cashan. “My vacation plans are all set. We’re scheduled to visit my wife’s brother the second week in August. It’s the only time he can get off work.”

Cashan shook his head. “That’s a tough break, Sam, but there’s nothing I can do about it. The mandate came down from the top.”

Shaeffer refused to settle for that explanation. “I’m going to fight this to the Supreme Court if I have to.”

Question: Given his seniority and prearranged plans does Shaeffer have a case if he follows through with his threat?

Jordan’s verdict: Plant Engineer Albert Jordan said when informed of Shaeffer’s threat, “I feel for the guy, but we can’t make him an exception or set a precedent in his case. For one thing, nothing in the labor agreement prevents management from shutting down when it needs to or declaring the shutdown a vacation week. On top of that, it’s the company’s right to manage the business as it sees fit and to schedule vacations accordingly so long as it is not discriminatory.”

Achieved seniority: Does it expire?

Seniority is a precious commodity in corporate plants and offices. It becomes especially precious at times of economic slowdown when employee layoffs occur. In such circumstances, some laid-off workers find new jobs. Others wait out the layoffs. Still others try to find work but can’t.

For those who decide to wait out the layoffs, or are unable to find employment, a key question often occurs: When recalled or rehired, will my seniority hold up? The situation varies according to the labor agreement.

In an auto parts manufacturing plant the effects of a sales decline were felt first with the discontinuation of overtime. This was followed by the termination of part-time workers and the elimination of a second and third shift. Finally, some regular employees were laid off.

Weeks passed into months with no improvement in the economic situation. Finally, after 14 months or so, things began to look up. One by one, laid-off employees who were still available were called back.

One of the first people recalled was Jim Ludlow, a maintenance department mechanic. His joy faded somewhat when he saw his first paycheck.

“What gives here?” he complained to Maintenance Foreman Chuck Lemoyne. “How come I’m getting paid at the starting rate? I have almost 3 yr of seniority.”

Lemoyne said, “Sorry about that, Jim. You were laid off for about 14 months. Your seniority expired.”

“Where does it say that?”

“In the contract.”

Lemoyne pulled out a copy of the labor agreement and flipped to the appropriate clause. He read, “employees on layoff shall retain their seniority for a period not exceeding one yr. If recalled after a year entry-level status shall apply.”

“That’s a rip-off,” Ludlow protested.

Lemoyne shrugged. “That’s the rule. I can’t do a thing about it.”

Question: Can the worker successfully oppose the ruling?

Noonan’s verdict: Plant Engineer Frank Noonan expressed his regrets personally. “Most companies have a cutoff period. We tried to be as fair as possible in framing the cutoff clause. It’s an administrative problem of record keeping and paperwork to keep employees on the books for a long time after layoff. “We reasoned that 6 months was too short a time to discontinue seniority and more than a year too costly and impractical. We feel that a year is just about right.”

Inadequate leadership

Plant Engineer Greg Martin summoned Project Supervisor Bill Griffith for a chat in his office. “You look like your best friend just ran off with your wife,” Martin said. “What’s the problem?”

Griffith didn’t realize his frustration showed on his face.

“I don’t know,” he groused. “Sometimes I think that the only way to get a job done right is to do it myself. Most guys in my group take twice the time to complete an assignment than it would take to do it myself. If I point this out to them, they think I’m being unfair. I get more resentment than cooperation.”

Martin nodded thoughtfully. “Are you saying your people don’t measure up to the standards set in the department? That they lack the training required? They’re a bunch of goof-ups? Or what?”

“I’m not saying any of that,” Griffith replied. “I’m just not getting the level of performance I feel I should be getting. I wish I had the answer.”

“Thanks for leveling with me,” his boss said. “Do you mind if I check into the situation and see what I can come up with?”

“Not at all. I’d appreciate any help I can get.”

The next couple of days the plant engineer chatted informally with a few engineers and specialists in Griffith’s group. He soon began to hone in on what he thought to be the source of the problem.

Question: Can you hazard a guess as to what Martin came up with?

Martin’s Proposed RX: The next time the executive summoned Griffith to his office, he said, “Bill, from what I’ve observed, my guess is you could use a 12-hr work day. Am I right?” “Twelve hours, are you kidding? How about 15?” “That’s what I thought. So, when necessary I can conclude you’re a great believer in delegation.” “Absolutely. If I tried to do everything myself I’d need a 90-hr week.” “So we’re on the same wavelength. Here’s my diagnosis after chatting with a few of your people and assuring them that I wasn’t seeking to blame anyone for anything. The problem might be that in delegating you fail to adequately qualify the person for the assignment involved. In a nutshell, you’re too busy to set up the job properly, to make sure the person knows exactly what you want him to do, and determine to your satisfaction that he has what it takes to complete it. When delegating work instead of saving time, you could be letting yourself in for extra time to take the corrective action needed. Delegation is no substitute for leadership. Think it over.”

Rest break policy: Do you have one?

Does your plant have an effective, well-worded policy on rest breaks? Many companies over-simplify, and some disregard or brush aside requirements they should take into consideration.

Rest breaks have their pros and cons. On the plus side they help combat boredom triggered by monotony caused by repetitive tasks, and in so doing, reduce accidents and increase productivity. On the minus side, extended breaks can kill more time than gazing out the window.

So what rest break policy will work best for your company or, more specifically, for your operation?

The first consideration addresses the legal aspects involved. Federal wage and hour laws don’t require rest breaks, but some state laws do. In either case, from a wage standpoint, where rest time is provided it must be treated the same as work time. Employees must be paid at the work time rate. Before deciding not to provide or eliminate a rest period, the first step is to make sure you are not located in Minnesota, California, Maine or any other state that requires rest breaks by law.

“Regardless of wage and hour laws,” states an HR Matters E-tip provided by Personnel Policy Service, Inc., “there are situations where an employer should consider rest breaks to accommodate particular employees with special needs.”

Take the case of John Simmons, a diabetic maintenance mechanic who required extra break time for insulin injections and snacks. A mutually acceptable arrangement was made with Simmons to report to work a half hour early each day to cover part of the extra time lost.

In the case of Sue Madison, a mechanic with a back problem, care was taken to assign her jobs that she could perform sitting down. On rare occasions when this wasn’t feasible, she was allowed short, unpaid rest breaks as required.

Question: On the whole, do rest breaks have good or bad bottom line consequences?

Davidson’s conclussion: One plant engineer, Chris Davidson, believes rest breaks are generally beneficial when properly administered and controlled. “The trick,” he says, “is to clamp down on rest break abuse. Snackers, if undisciplined, often tend to extend breaks, sitting and schmoozing in the employee cafeteria, so long as the traffic allows. Often most in need of watching,” he adds, “is the chronic smoker who sneaks out to light up whenever the opportunity arises.” In Davidson’s experience, this guy can be a major headache.

When verbal abuse becomes intolerable

Peggy Davis said disapprovingly, “I wouldn’t let that despicable character get away with that if I were you.”

The target of her disapproval was Ellie Burnside, a coworker in the maintenance department.

The character referred to was Bernie Shea, a utility worker. “Yeah, you’re right,” Ellie agreed, lowering her eyes. Davis’s criticism was embarrassing. It was also well deserved.

Shea, to state the case euphemistically, was obnoxious. For months, for almost a year now, Burnside had tolerated his distasteful and suggestive remarks, his sexually oriented jokes that were anything but funny, and his occasionally obscene gestures.

More than once she had objected, although not strongly enough, she realized. A couple of weeks ago, after a particularly offensive remark, she had complained for the second time to her boss, Maintenance Foreman Al Shane.

“If it happens again let me know,” Shane had replied.

Burnside didn’t know if Shane had spoken to him or not. If he did it had no noticeable effect on Shea.

More recently Burnside warned, “You better cut out the filth, Bernie, or I’ll get you in trouble.”

“Don’t be such a prude,” he retorted.

Davis’s critical comment had been just the prod Burnside needed. Tolerating his behavior, she realized, undermined respect for her in the department. She vowed then and there that she had taken all the abuse she intended to take.

Shea gave her an opportunity to make good on the vow soon enough with a particularly obnoxious remark.

“That does it,” she said, and made a beeline to Shane’s desk.

Minutes later Shea was handed a termination notice.

Stunned, he protested. “You’ve got to be kidding. I was just kidding around. She never made a big deal of it before. I’m not sitting still for this.”

Question: Is discharge too harsh a penalty for Shea’s behavior?

Flynn’s verdict: “The termination stands,” Plant Engineer Charles Flynn ruled. “Burnside’s complaint isn’t the first we received on this guy. On top of that, he’s got a spotty work record, and is a loser all around. Whether on not Burnside tolerated his behavior in the past is besides the point. She made it clear more than once that it was unwelcome and that her feelings were to be respected. Shea should have been fired long ago.”

Can you have too many grievances?

Newly appointed shop steward Harvy Rudman, a maintenance department electrician, was a conscientious employee. But his conscientiousness extended more to his performance as steward than it did to his performance on his job.

Rudman was adept at pursuing even the most miniscule alleged abuse of workers’ rights. Within weeks of his taking over the stewardship, Maintenance Supervisor Joe Dorkind was hit with a rash of complaints about everything from the overhead lighting to the quality of air in the plant. If response wasn’t fast enough to suit him, he filed the grievance repeatedly.

The flood of complaints irritated Dorkind from two perspectives. First, dealing with the paperwork was time consuming and annoying. Secondly, the time the steward took to write up all those grievances took him away from his assigned duties.

Dorkind beefed to Rudman about his excessive complaints.

“I’m just doing my job,” he maintained. “It’s my responsibility to see to it that the workforce gets a fair shake around here.”

“Maybe so,” Dorkind conceded, “but there’s such a thing as overdoing it.”

“When I see something that needs correcting,” Rudman persisted, “I’m going to grieve. If the complaint is ignored, I’ll grieve again and again until the job gets done.”

Questions: Is the steward’s rejoinder justified? Can a limit be imposed on the number of grievances he submits?

Gorman’s response: When Plant Engineer Ralph Gorman reviewed the number of grievances filed, the duplication of complaints, and the picayune nature of some, he supported Dorkind’s objection. “Enough is enough,” he declared. “When the number of grievances reaches the point where they interfere with the normal work flow and serve more as harassment than anything else, it is time to taper down to a fair and reasonable level. Send Rudman to my office. If I can’t get this message through to him we’ll have a grievance of our own to file.”

Demanding a scheduling change

When Carpenter Grade II Arthur Haddock died, second shift Grade II Carpenter Harry Rose was quick to request a switch to the day shift to fill in for Haddock.

“I’m fed up with night work,” Rose told Maintenance Supervisor Tony Gentoso. “My wife and kids are even more fed up than I am.”

“I don’t know,” his boss replied. “I’ll check it out, but I’m not so sure I can swing it.”

“I don’t see why not,” Rose said. “A vacancy exists, and I’m the senior man on this shift.”

“Scheduling isn’t affected by seniority,” Gentoso replied, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

Later that day he gave Rose the bad news. “Sorry about that, Harry, but your request was turned down.”

“How come? As the senior man I have a right to fill that vacancy.”

“That’s the problem,” Gentoso said. “No vacancy exists. Management decided to eliminate the job. Sales have been falling off. Haddock’s death created a staff cut, not a vacancy.”

“That’s a rip-off,” Rose snapped back. “We’ll see about that.”

Question: Is Rose within his rights in demanding a transfer to the day shift based on his seniority?

Hagen’s verdict: “Rose stays on the swing shift,” Plant Engineer Alex Hagen told Gentoso when informed of the carpenter’s protest. “You were correct in explaining to him that seniority has no effect on scheduling. When times are tough it is management’s right to cut corners as the opportunity and need arises.”

Greater includes the lesser

A favorite axiom of arbitrators often expressed in grievance and termination hearings is “the greater includes the lesser.”

In an Ohio manufacturing company the labor agreement specified, “Employees in violation of plant safety policies and regulations would be subject to discharge.”

In the case in question, Sam Becker, a welder, was observed by his supervisor without a helmet while working in a part of the plant where helmets were mandated by prominently posted notices.

Called to account for his failure to comply, Becker explained that he had been struck on the head by a baseball the day before resulting in a sore and swollen spot on his head.

“It hurts me there when I put on the helmet.”

He showed Tom Appleton the bruise.

“Had you told me this beforehand,” Appleton said, “I would have assigned you elsewhere. Safety rules are inviolate around here.”

Becker apologized and said he would know better next time.

The welder was given a three-day suspension.

Becker protested the suspension on the grounds that the labor agreement specified only discharge in violation of safety rules, and no one was ever suspended for that infraction before.

Question: Based on Becker’s contention, do you think his suspension is inappropriate?

Stillman’s decision: Plant Engineer Frank Stillman shook his head when informed of the welder’s gripe. “Some people don’t appreciate it when they get off easy. The suspension stands.” He added, “As arbitrators like to point out, heavy discipline automatically implies acceptance of lighter discipline. In this case the fact that suspension is rarely or never used for a safety violation doesn’t negate its application where warranted.”

Off premises drug use

Maintenance Department welder Joyce Munroe was out about a month after a knee replacement. Three weeks after her return to work Maintenance Supervisor Bill Kransky learned that she had been arrested on a drug charge during her absence.

Kransky summoned Munroe to his desk to determine if the information was accurate.

“I was arrested and then released,” she admitted.

“What’s the story?” Kransky persisted. “I want to hear the details.”

“It was no big deal,” Munroe replied. “I did a friend a favor. It was a dumb thing to do.”

“What kind of favor?”

“He gave me some crack and asked me to deliver it to someone. The cops were waiting. I got caught.”

“Is this something you do on a regular basis? Deliver drugs?”

“No, it was the first and only time.”

“Are you a user yourself?”

“No way!” Munroe replied.

Kransky frowned. “Okay for now. I’ll get back to you on this.”

Question: In Kransky’s shoes what action would you take?

Levy’s decision: The supervisor made a beeline to his boss’s office and talked with Plant Engineer Ken Levy. “What kind of work record does Munroe have?” he asked Kransky. “Better than average. She was up for a merit increase before being hospitalized.” “Has she ever been involved or implicated before with regard to drug use or trafficking?” “No, she’s got a clean record.” Levy nodded. “We take no punitive action at this time other than a memo to make it clear that we’ll be keeping an eye on her.”