Human Side – 2003-03-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor March 15, 2003

Employee illness: Full recovery disputed

After a tough bout with pneumonia, and following nine days in the hospital, Welder Grade I Tony Molinaro telephoned his boss that he was ready to return to work.

“That’s good news,” Maintenance Foreman Al Comanche replied. “Did you get a green light from your doctor?”

“No problem. The doc says I’m fit as a fiddle and ready for action. He gave me a note to that effect.”

“Great! All you need to do now is come down to the plant and get an okay from the company physician.”

“Why do I have to do that? Isn’t my doctor’s word good enough?”

“I don’t make the rules, pal. That’s what the labor agreement says you have to do.”

The following day Molinaro showed up at the medical office. The company physician reviewed the records and checked him over.

“You’re coming along,” he conceded. “But to be on the safe side, I would prescribe another week of relaxation and rest.”

Molinaro protested the doctor’s recommendation to his boss.

“I feel fine,” he told Comanche. “My doctor says I’m in good health.”

Question: Shouldn’t Molinaro’s family doctor’s okay be enough to permit him to return to work?

Verdict: It rarely fails that when a labor-management dispute needs to be resolved, having an appropriate contract clause on hand makes life easier for all concerned. The clause read as follows: “Where a return-to-work decision is involved, should the Company physician differ with the employee’s doctor regarding his or her readiness, the judgment of an independent physician shall be solicited to resolve the disagreement.”

Molinaro sighed with resignation and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to seek a third opinion.

Power failure Do workers get reporting pay?

It was a stormy day with thunder and lightning flashes putting on a dramatic show in the sky. By 8:45 a.m. management’s worst fears were realized. A power failure occurred. The outage lasted seven minutes, and was repeated twelve minutes later by another one. For an additional hour or so it was on again, off again. By 10 a.m. management decided to shut down the plant for the rest of the day. A loudspeaker announcement instructed employees to punch out and informed them that normal working hours would resume the following day.

When payday rolled around, Jake Prentice, acting as spokesman for a disgruntled group of workers, complained to Maintenance Supervisor Bruce Creighton that the crew should have received at least four hours reporting pay instead of only two hours for their time on the job prior to the shutdown. He cited a clause in the labor agreement that stated if employees were sent home due to lack of work they were entitled to a minimum of four hours reporting pay.

“That clause doesn’t apply in this case,” Creighton replied, ” because the cause of the shutdown was beyond management’s control.”

Prentice disagreed. “The shutdown was premature,” he claimed. “Management didn’t have to send everyone home. Electrical storms don’t last all day.”

“Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It would have been too costly to take a chance. It was management’s judgment to make.”

Prentice didn’t like that line of reasoning and threatened a grievance.

Creighton shrugged, and made a beeline for the boss’s office.

Question: In your opinion is the crew entitled to four hours reporting pay?

Murdock’s verdict: Plant Engineer Frank Murdock turned down the workers’ demand. Summoning Prentice to his office, he pointed to a clause in the contract that stated: “…the reporting pay section shall not apply if the plant’s failure to operate is due to an act of God, major mechanical breakdown, government regulation, fire, flood, riot, or any other circumstance beyond the Company’s control.”

Prentice had no words that held weight in response.

Murdock smiled. Good try, Jake. Better luck next time.”

Can involvement in union activities hamper a career?

Claude Dubois was a diligent shop steward employed as a carpenter in an Illinois union plant. When Leadman Sam Lieberman opted for early retirement, Dubois concluded that finally his long-overdue promotion was at last forthcoming. But when Frank Foster got the nod instead of him, the steward was at first stunned, then righteously indignant. Dubois felt that not only was he as well qualified as Foster, but he also had more seniority.

With this thought in mind the steward made a beeline for Maintenance Foreman Chuck Shultz’s desk.

“Simmer down,” his boss advised. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is Frank Foster’s appointment to that leadman’s job. I’m every bit as competent, and I have better seniority.”

Shultz replied, “I don’t pull decisions like this out of thin air. All candidates for the job were carefully evaluated.”

“Then how come…?”

“I’ll tell you how come. Leadman is a tough, demanding, full-time job. You’re so busy handling union stuff it would interfere with your duties as leadman.”

“You have got to be kidding. We’ll see about that.”

Question: Do you think Shultz has a valid reason for bypassing Dubois?

Muller’s response: When the controversy reached Plant Engineer George Muller’s office, the executive was quick to veto Shultz’s decision. “If a clause limiting the upgrading of union representatives existed, it might justify bypassing Dubois. No such provision exists. The leadman job goes to the steward.”

Is fear of vertigo a reason to refuse an assignment?

When Mary Orosco, a maintenance department utility worker, was assigned the task of removing the rust from a fixture located near the ceiling of Building Two, the employee blanched. “What’s the problem,” Maintenance Supervisor Joel Demarest demanded.

“I’m subject to attacks of vertigo,” Orosco replied. “I’m afraid to climb up that high.”

Demarest pointed out to Orosco that other workers in her job classification were required to fill the assignment. “This is an equal-opportunity employer. What applies to one employee applies to others in the same category.”

This argument didn’t persuade the utility worker. “I’m afraid of getting dizzy and passing out at that height. I can’t take the chance.”

“I have no one else to assign,” Demarest said.

When Orosco persisted in her refusal, the supervisor informed her that refusing an assignment was insubordination and that she would be subjected to discipline.

In that case, the employee threatened, she would file a grievance.

Question: If Orosco follows through on her threat, would discipline be justified?

Grant’s decision: When the notice to suspend the utility worker reached Plant Engineer George Grant’s desk for approval, he summoned Demarest to his office. He asked the supervisor, “How often does the need occur for someone to perform an assignment at such a height?”

“Not very often,” Demarest conceded. “But…”

“Forget the but. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Assign the job to someone else, and let’s get on with the job.”

Can a search firm recruit a person it placed?

Fair is fair, Assistant Plant Engineer Edgar Davis decided when tipped off that Arnold Griffen, a top-rated engineer, had been approached by a recruiter from Simmons & Lowe (name disguised), the executive search firm that had placed him 14 months prior. If he read it right, the search firm’s action was dirty pool.

Davis asked Griffen what his conversation with the recruiter was all about.

Griffen shrugged. “They want to know if I’m available.”

“Did he offer you a job?”

“Not yet. He mentioned that an interesting opportunity might be coming up and said he’d get back to me.”

“Did you tell him you’re available?”

“Not really. But I told him I’m always ready to listen.”

Davis offered no further comment but made a quick trip to Plant Engineer Harold Trane’s office.

Question: What action if any would you take in Trane’s place?

Trane’s response: “Let’s take a look at our contract with Simmons & Lowe.” Upon doing so, Trane said, “Just as I thought: The contract stipulates that in filling jobs ‘the client organization is off limits for a period of 2 yr following a placement.’ I’ll contact them to cease and desist.”

He added, “A handy clause to have around.”

Supervisor and seniority

When Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Jerry Flaxman was granted a month’s special leave, his boss decided to fill in with Leadman Charley Davis. Assistant supervisor was a job with management responsibility that took its holder off the time clock. As leadman, Charley was required to punch in and out upon entering or leaving the plant.

Ordinarily, the union had no complaint when an hourly employee was temporarily transferred to a higher-level job.

For one thing, the person earned a higher rate of pay. For another, it gave him a chance to acquire new knowledge and skills that could eventually lead to advancement.

What bothered the union on this occasion, as Shop Steward Alex Richman made eloquently clear to Maintenance Supervisor Dave Vincent, was management’s policy of including the time spent as a part of Charles’s seniority standing.

“When a guy is switched to a supervisory job,” he griped, “he’s no longer a member of the bargaining unit. He stops being a rank-and-file worker. His seniority should terminate.”

Vincent shook his head. “What you want is self-defeating. If you discourage management from giving a person a chance to prove himself at a higher-level job, not only is management deprived of an opportunity to test the individual’s ability to cover the job, the employee misses out as well.”

Vincent’s argument failed to dissuade Richman.

Question: Do you see any merit to the steward’s argument?

Templar’s decision: Plant Engineer Harvey Templar set Richman straight in two minutes flat. “Prior cases of this kind leave no doubt,” he said. “Temporarily transferring an employee from a line to a supervisory job doesn’t change his status as a member of the regular workforce. His permanent assignment is still the same. He continues to accumulate seniority. Case closed.”

How important is attitude?

Carpenter Grade II Ed Gonzales groused to a coworker, “If I was a lily white Caucasian I would’ve gotten the job.”

His buddy’s response didn’t make him feel any better. “Don’t gripe to me, amigo. Do something about it.”

Gonzales decided to take him up on his word. He made a beeline for his supervisor’s desk.

“What’s the problem, Pepe?” Maintenance Foreman Ed Mellon asked.

“The problem is I’m getting

the shaft around here because I’m a Latino.”

“That’s news to me,” Mellon said.

“Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. What I want to know is how come Harry Marshall gets promoted Grade I when a vacancy arises? I do the same job he does. I do it just as well. And I’ve got 2 yr seniority on him.”

“I can’t deny that,” his boss said.

“Then you admit!”

“I don’t admit a thing,” Mellon said, “other than that you are well qualified as a Grade II carpenter. But it takes more than that. Qualifying for Grade II doesn’t mean you are right

for Grade I.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll spell it out for you. Aptitude is one thing; attitude is another. Carpenter Grade I is tougher and more demanding than Grade II. It requires the ability to set up jobs and the handling of more complicated tools. When courses were offered to help learn these skills you had the same chance as Harry to sign up.

“But Harry jumped at the opportunity and you turned it down. When overtime was needed to get the department out of a bind, Harry always pitched in willingly. You usually had an excuse for not helping out. You had the same chance as Harry to prove yourself, but you missed the boat. It’s not my fault.”

Gonzales refused to settle for Mellon’s explanation. He threatened to file a grievance on the basis of discrimination.

Question: If Gonzales grieves, what are his chances of winning?

Bundy’s decision: Clued in by the foreman, Plant Engineer Tom Bundy summoned Gonzales to his office. He didn’t pull any punches. “Pepe,” he said, “you still have a crack at promotion; your nationality has nothing to do with it. William James, a famed psychologist, once said that attitude is more important than aptitude. All you have to do, my friend, is keep that in mind and you’ll get ahead.”

When worker is on vacation can you split his duties?

When it comes to compensation it’s human nature to want as much as you can get. But as Maintenance Supervisor Frank

Johnson told Unit Representative Harold Gordon, “How picayune can you get?”

Gordon appeared at his desk one morning in behalf of his group.

“What can I do you for?” Johnson asked.

“That’s the problem exactly. We’re being screwed by management again.”

“Again? I can’t remember last time. What’s the beef now?”

“It’s about extra work calling for extra pay.”

“Extra work?”

“You heard me. When employees are on vacation, the workers remaining are saddled with their duties as well as their own.”

“So what’s the big deal?” Johnson replied, “It’s company policy to distribute the work among the rest of the crew when employees take off on vacation.”

“That doesn’t mean that it’s right. When workers are required to double up, a new job classification is created. A fair rate should be negotiated. Employees expected to shoulder an extra workload are entitled to overtime pay for handling the additional work.”

“That’s not the way it works in real life,” Johnson said. “In the first place, the overall workload is lower at vacation time. If overtime were needed to complete it, overtime would be assigned.”

Gordon refused to settle for that explanation.

Question: Do you think the unit leader is making a valid case for the extra pay?

Jenkins’s verdict: “You can’t fault a man for trying,” Plant Engineer Arthur Jenkins told Johnson when he reported Gordon’s gripe. “But unless the labor agreement specifies otherwise, it is automatically assumed that a few extra duties do not constitute a workload sufficient to either warrant a new classification or entitle employees to overtime pay. Tell Gordon I said, ‘Good try, but no dice.'”

Compulsive job hopper

Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz once said during an interview, “There is no point so high that one can say, ‘This is the peak.'”

Most employment experts will agree that healthy ambition keeps people on their toes and productive. However true, this philosophy can also produce managerial headaches if it gets out of hand.

Bob Freize was a maintenance department employee who took Heifetz’s statement to heart. In his mid-twenties he had been hired 14 months prior as an entry-level employee, a slot he filled competently while attending courses at a local technical trade school four evenings a week.

After four months, Freize requested and was granted a job classification change to Electrician Trainee. He was moving up, but not fast enough for this ambitious young man.

Five months later, thanks in part to pressures he exerted on his supervisor Leadman Bill Taylor, Frieze’s classification was upped from trainee to Electrician Grade II. Clearly on his way, but no reason to stop pushing in his opinion. If you don’t toot your own horn, he reasoned, who will do it for you?

But when horn blowing is too persistent it can become annoying to say the least. When Frieze approached Taylor with his sights set on Electrician Grade I, his boss rolled his eyes. “You have got to be kidding, Bob. It’s not more than four or five months ago that you made Grade II.”

“So what? I can handle the job. I’m entitled to get it.”

Question: On the one hand, you don’t want to lose a smart guy like Frieze. On the other hand, you have to keep his ambition in rein. What to do?

Leibman’s response: Taylor discussed Frieze’s rapid push for advancement with his boss. “Fortunately,” Plant Engineer Len Leibman told the supervisor, “a job-bumper clause in the labor agreement takes the problem out of your hands.” Flipping through the pages he read, “…a successful bidder for a job will be prohibited for a period of one year from bidding for another job.”

Can you forbid employees to disclose salary?

When Jeff Turner, a bright young engineer, griped to Assistant Plant Engineer Ed Fristrom that he was overdue for a raise, Fristrom snapped back, “How do you figure that?” Turner hesitated, and then reluctantly informed the supervisor that Harry Susskind, whose job description and performance were no different from his, received a paycheck almost 20% higher.

Fristrom gave Turner a hard look. “How do you know that?”

The engineer shifted uneasily. “The word gets around.”

Fristrom said noncommittally, “I’ll get back to you later.”

Fristrom summoned Susskind to his desk and told him about the engineer’s visit and complaint.

“How does Jeff know your salary?” he demanded.

Susskind shrugged. “Beats me.”

Fristrom finally got him to confess that under Turner’s goading he had disclosed what he earned.

“That was in violation of the labor agreement,” the supervisor accused.

“I never signed such an agreement.”

“Maybe not. But you were instructed when you were hired that employee compensation is confidential and that a company rule prohibits employees from sharing wage information.”

When Susskind failed to reply, Fristrom said, “You haven’t heard the last of this.”

Question: Should Susskind be subject to discipline for having violated the company rule?

Millstein’s verdict: “That rule never should have been made in the first place,” Plant Engineer Allen Millstein told his assistant. “It may be in violation of a federal or state law forbidding employer prohibition of wage sharing by employees. Under the National Labor Relations Act, such restriction could be construed as employer interference with the right of workers to engage in concerted activity for the purpose of seeking higher wages. A more acceptable policy is one that encourages employees to direct compensation questions and requests to the personnel or human resources department.”

Is failure to disclose an arrest grounds for dismissal?

Browsing through personnel folders in an effort to familiarize herself with employee backgrounds and histories, recently hired Personnel Director Jo Ann Coulter reviewed a 3-yr-old employment application for John Lawrence, a maintenance department utility man.

Perusal disclosed that when he applied for work Lawrence had falsified his reason for leaving a prior job and had failed to list an arrest. The application form had included an employer policy statement as follows: Failure to disclose an arrest may be construed as possible grounds for dismissal .

“This man shouldn’t be working here,” Coulter dutifully informed Plant Engineer Frank Medwick.

Medwick flipped though Lawrence’s personnel folder before responding to Coulter.

Question: Should Lawrence be terminated for his violation of corporate policy?

Medwick’s decision: “We have every right to discharge the employee,” Medwick told Coulter. “But the policy statement’s language gives me pause. It includes the words ‘may be’ and ‘possible grounds for dismissal’ in discussing the violation. Lawrence has a good record with the company and 3 trouble-free years of employment. This seems to indicate that he might have redeemed himself. Considering how tough it is for a person with an arrest on his record to land a job, the man’s falsification, probably as an act of desperation, isn’t the greatest sin one could commit. My recommendation is that you give him a week’s disciplinary suspension and let him know that the violation will remain part of his permanent record.”

‘Progressive’ means just that

Maintenance Foreman Tom Hart had the right idea about how to discipline delinquent employees, but the wrong way of carrying it out.

Joel Shaine, a mediocre utility worker, was a chronic absentee. Over his 2 yr of employment, he had phoned in sick or with some other excuse a total of 21 times. More than once Hart had decided that last-straw time was at hand, but gave Shaine “one more chance.” During the past 6 months, the utility worker had received four “final” warnings.

When Shaine phoned in sick one Monday morning after having taken off the Friday before, Hart decided that enough was enough. He typed the termination notice.

Shaine’s response was “No way.” He stomped off and complained to Pete Merchant, his bargaining unit representative.

“You have got to be kidding,” Hart replied when Merchant stood up for the worker. “I couldn’t tell you how many warnings that guy received.”

“That’s just my point,” Merchant snapped. “Those final warnings aren’t progressive; it was the same thing every time.”

Question: Can Hart make the termination stick?

Pilgrim’s verdict: “If you had bitten the bullet a long time ago, we would have been well rid of him by now,” Plant Engineer Frank Pilgrim told Hart. “Merchant’s point is well taken. ‘ Progressive’ means increasingly severe discipline on a gradual basis culminating in the ultimate punishment which a delinquent employee should be made to anticipate. Since Shaine had no expectation of being fired, the rule of progressive discipline has been violated.”