Human Side – 2003-02-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor February 15, 2003

A man’s job? Don’t treat women as the weaker sex

When a stock handler’s job opening appeared on the bulletin board, it caught Alma Kornhauser’s attention.

But when the utility worker applied for the job, Maintenance Foreman Joe Sternfeld didn’t take her request seriously. Kornhauser lost no time assuring him she was perfectly serious.

The job would carry with it an increase in pay. Kornhauser reminded her boss she was a single mother with two kids to support. “I’m struggling to make ends meet. Every dollar counts.”

Sternfeld nodded. “I can appreciate that. But let’s face reality. Stock handlers are required to lift cartons and crates of 60 lb or more. It’s strictly a man’s job.”

When she persisted the supervisor replied, “I’m sorry, Alma, maybe something else will come up.”

The employee was depressed and disappointed until that night at home when she looked at herself in the mirror. Her muscles bulged. Her bowling average was 165. She worked out every day. Next to her, some of the stock handlers were puny.

Then a thought occurred to her. Companies were being sued left and right for discrimination. Wasn’t Sternfeld’s refusal to consider her for the stock handler’s job because she was a woman a form of discrimination?

The next day at work she approached her boss again, this time with a newspaper clip describing a worker’s judgment in a court case involving discrimination in excess of $100,000. “I’d hate to have to sue the company,” she told Sternfeld.

Question: Is Kornhauser within her rights in insisting she be considered for the stock handler’s job?

Marconi’s verdict: “Alma has as much right to apply for the opening as any man on the crew,” Plant Engineer Frank Marconi told Sternfeld. “Not only is turning her down on the basis of gender discriminatory, it is absolutely Victorian. If she qualifies for the job and is the only female stock handler on the crew, more power to her.”

Here in the morning, gone at lunchtime Should you pay him?

Question one : How much does it cost to advertise a position, screen applicants, and hire and orientate a new employee?

Question two: If the guy walks out when the lunch buzzer sounds, do you have to pay him, and if so, how much?

These were the questions facing Maintenance Foreman Bill Slocum one gloomy Tuesday afternoon.

The previous day Joe Shaw, a carpenter hired the week before, had showed up at 8 a.m., punched in, was escorted around the department, introduced to coworkers, and given preliminary job instructions.

This lasted until noon when the lunch buzzer sounded. At which point he took off and did not return. It was the last Slocum heard from him until he received a call the next day. Shaw wanted to know when he would be paid for the time he had “worked.”

Chutzpah? You could make a good case for it. Nonetheless, it’s a situation that occurs more often than one might think.

“The guy expects to be paid!” Slocum muttered through tight lips to his assistant. “He must be nuts. He should owe the company money. Do you know what it costs to advertise for a new employee, screen, hire, and orientate him?”

“A bundle,” his assistant replied glumly.

“The guy’s off his rocker if he expects to be paid,” Slocum grumbled.

Question: Should Slocum ignore Shaw’s request for the pay due him?

Mandel’s mandate: “Pay the guy for his time spent on the job,” Plant Engineer Bob Mandell instructed Slocum. “Deserved or not, that’s the law. Regardless of the investment made in screening and hiring Shaw, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t allow you to offset it because of his ill-timed resignation. Whether or not useful work was performed during the employee’s brief stint is of no consequence. Time spent in the workplace must be compensated.”

Sexual harassment When accepting it becomes unacceptable

True, the maintenance department employed some rough characters. Profanity was used as a matter of course, at the loading dock in particular. Merchandise Handler Lucy Waxman had long held her own with the men, giving as good as she took.

Don Paxton, a coworker, was especially abusive. Not only were four-letter words a preferred part of his vocabulary, he liked to taunt Lucy with obscene sexual suggestions and gestures. A favorite of his was to grab his groin in an effort to emphasize his sexual comments.

Paxton’s behavior had long offended Lucy, but until recently she felt that acting like “one of the boys” was the smart way to react. Lately, however, she had revised her thinking.

Failing to object to the vulgarity, she was advised, only cheapened her in Paxton’s eyes and in the eyes of her coworkers who were almost exclusively male.

Having come to this conclusion, she made it clear to Paxton that she regarded his behavior as sexual harassment and wanted him to stop. His response was, “Come on, baby, don’t be a prude.”

Lucy tightened her lips. “The next time you do that,” she threatened, referring to his obnoxious groin gesture, “I’m complaining to Dennis.”

Paxton grunted. “Dennis will laugh in your face.”

It didn’t take Paxton long to repeat the gesture accompanied by his favorite four-letter word.

“That does it,” Lucy snapped, and made a beeline for the foreman’s desk.

Maintenance Foreman Dennis Goldman didn’t laugh in Lucy’s face. He checked around the department and confirmed the truth of her complaint. He then summoned Paxton to his desk and called him to account in her presence. Paxton didn’t deny the charge.

“What’s the big deal? We’ve been kidding around like that for years. Everyone does it. All of a sudden she’s Miss Lily White.”

“What Lucy tolerated in the past isn’t the issue here,” Goldman said. “Your behavior embarrasses her and you ignored her repeated requests to stop. That created a hostile environment and constitutes sexual harassment that in this plant is cause for dismissal. Get your final check from Personnel and clock out.”

Do you think the firing is justified or does Paxton deserve another chance?

Progressive discipline: Does it have limitations?

The wall clock read 1:22 p.m. when Jerry Spooner, a boiler tender in the maintenance department, returned to his workstation. With an hour for lunch Spooner was more than 20 minutes late.

Maintenance Supervisor Ben Palmer was waiting for him, tightlipped. “That’s a rush job you’re supposed to be working on Spooner.”

“I couldn’t help it,” the welder replied sheepishly. “My watch stopped. I thought I had plenty of time.”

Palmer shook his head. “I’ve heard weak excuses in my time, but this one takes the cake.”

The plant operated on a 3-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. Spooner had already received a verbal and written warning under the company’s progressive discipline system about returning more than 5 minutes late from his lunch break. This was occurrence number 3. Palmer handed him a suspension notice. Three days.

“You can’t suspend me,” Spooner protested. “Whatever happened to progressive discipline?”

“That’s exactly what you’re getting. Three strikes and you’re out. This is the third time you’re late from lunch.”

“This time doesn’t count. It’s only my second lateness this year. The first warning I got was more than 16 months ago. I can’t be disciplined for something that occurred that far back.”

“We’ll see about that,” Palmer said.

Questions: Should Spooner’s suspension hold? Should there be a limit to progressive discipline?

Venuti’s verdict: When the case was called to the plant engineer’s attention, John Venuti instructed Palmer to withdraw the suspension. “Check the labor agreement. The time frame has been made clear. There’s a limit to the 3-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. Offenses over a year old are erased from the employee’s record. This is Spooner’s second offense.”

Union stickers Can they be deemed offensive?

A labor union was attempting to organize the plant. The company had a fairly lenient policy regarding the employee posting of personalized materials. Thus many workers decorated their lockers, lunchboxes, and toolboxes with pictures of their kids, wives, or significant others.

Management had no objection to this, workers were advised, so long as items posted weren’t offensive.

In its organizing efforts, union delegates distributed buttons, pamphlets, stickers, and other materials. The more aggressive employees wore the buttons on their jackets and attached other union materials to their toolboxes, lunchboxes, and lockers.

A few prounion drivers of forklifts, carts, and other plant vehicles displayed union stickers on their machines.

Maintenance Foreman Chuck O’Brien, a strong company man from way back who was outspokenly anti-union, started removing the stickers.

Mechanic first grade Harry Weldon took him to task. “What gives, Chuck? Since when is the posting of union materials against the law?”

“Since now,” O’Brien replied. “That stuff is a form of solicitation. What you stick on your jacket or car is your own business. But this plant doesn’t provide company-owned equipment to promote the union.”

“Company policy as I’ve always read it,” Weldon persisted, “is that employees are free to post materials so long as they’re not offensive.”

“Well, this is offensive,” O’Brien snapped back.

Weldon headed for the personnel office.

Question: Do you think employees should be prohibited from posting union materials on company property?

Wong’s response: “Allow the postings,” Plant Engineer Charles Wong instructed O’Brien. “For one thing, by no definition could a union sticker be considered offensive. For another, prohibiting the posting could be construed as interference with union organizing as protected by the National Labor Relations Act. For a third, making an issue of this just prior to an election would put the company at risk for charges of antiunion bias.”

Demoted during trial period: Does he have legitimate beef?

If anyone deserved a promotion, it was Maintenance Department Repairman George Sachs. No one believed this more than George Sachs. After all, he had been on the job almost 18 yr as a Grade II with a good record and near-perfect attendance.

So when he was promoted to Grade I, with a 30-day trial period, his response was, “It’s about time!” His boss, Maintenance Supervisor Phil Lawton wasn’t so sure. As time passed, he became even less sure. Sachs worked hard. His attendance was as dependable as ever. But Grade I assignments were more demanding than Grade II. On more than one job that came up, Sachs couldn’t cut the mustard. He couldn’t even cut the ketchup, Lawton decided.

After 16 days the supervisor’s decision hardened and set. He summoned Sachs to his desk. “George, I want you to replace the busted shaft on that number 2 grinding machine. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so.”

Sachs set out to perform the assignment. Two hours later Lawton passed by his work station. Sachs was still struggling to remove the broken shaft. His boss showed him what he had been doing wrong and within 5 minutes the shaft was out.

Lawton sighed. “I don’t enjoy telling you this, but I have to reassign you back to Grade II. I’m afraid you’re not going to make it as a Grade I repairman.”

“That’s not fair,” Sachs protested. “I’ve only been on the job 3 weeks. I’m entitled to a 30-day trial period.”

Lawton disagreed. “I can’t afford to lose the time. That Grade I slot has to be filled.”

Question: Is Lawton within his rights to cut George’s probationary period short?

Wineman’s verdict: “Sachs gets demoted,” Plant Engineer Ralph Wineman ruled. “Send him to my office. I’ll show him the clause in the contract that states employees may be disqualified before the end of their trial period if it becomes obvious to management that they cannot handle the job.”

Vacation policy change: How much notice is needed?

The busy season at a New England manufacturing plant was in full swing by mid-September. Increasingly each year the manpower situation was growing tight toward the middle of August. On March 2nd the problem was discussed at an executive meeting.

“I’m open to suggestions,” Plant Manager Jeff Dawson announced.

A number of ideas were offered with regard to equipment, supplies, and product scheduling. But the crux of the problem, Plant Engineer Joe Silverstein pointed out, was the shortage of manpower toward the end of August. Too many workers were on vacation.

Personnel Manager Beth Russo made a wry face. “Face it, summertime, and more specifically July and August, is the preferred time for taking vacation. If we curtail these months it will make a lot of people unhappy.”

“We may not have a choice,” Dawson said.

Several heads nodded. A policy change restricting vacations after August 15th was decided upon. In a few weeks workers would be required to submit vacation request forms specifying their preferred vacation dates, which management always did its best to comply with.

Question: How much notice will be needed to put this policy change into effect?

Russo’s response: “The sooner the better,” the personnel manager replied. “Since this isn’t a union plant, no legal or contractual rule requiring advance notice of policy changes applies. But in the interest of good employee relations, as much advance notice and explanation as possible should be given. This will give people an opportunity to understand and review the new policy before implementation.” “Agreed,” Dawson said. “Prepare a statement at once.”

Excessive absence: A reason to deny promotion?

When an opening for Mechanic Grade I opened, 8-yr employee Mechanic Grade II Carlos Gonzales was one of the candidates considered. Although well qualified for the job, he was bypassed in favor of Mechanic Grade II Charley Dorf.

The announcement by Maintenance Supervisor Jake Clift sped Gonzales to Clift’s desk in a huff.

“What’s the problem?” Clift said.

“I’ve been screwed. As if you don’t know.”

Clift didn’t believe in pulling his punches. “You didn’t really expect to get that promotion, did you?”

“Darned right I expected it; I have better seniority than Dorf by more than 2 yr. What’s more, I’m just as qualified for the job.”

“No one says you’re not.”

“Then why…?”

“The ‘why’ is simple. Take a look at your attendance record. You were absent 31 days last year.”

“I couldn’t help it; I was sick.”

Clift shrugged. “My responsibility,” he countered, “is to do what’s best for the department. Grade I is a key job. Regular attendance is essential.”

“Regular attendance is what you’ll get,” Gonzales replied.

“I’ve heard that promise before. Sorry, Carlos. Show me an improvement, and you may get the nod next time around.”

Unwilling to settle for this answer, Gonzales appealed to his unit representative.

Question: Should the promotion go to the senior man?

Dempsey’s decision: When Plant Engineer Dan Dempsey reviewed the case he instructed Clift to give Gonzales the promotion. “For one thing,” he said, “no contractual clause mentions fitness or physical well being as a criterion for promotion. For another, excessive absence is a subject for corrective discipline and in extreme cases dismissal, not infringement of a man’s seniority rights. Issue Gonzales a warning about the consequences of continued substandard attendance, and let’s take it from there.”