Human Side – 2003-05-06

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor May 6, 2003

Safety violation: Withdraw the suspension?

More often than not, discipline stands up when a safety rule is violated. Rightly so. Safety rules are set up and enforced to avoid employee injury and the loss of corporate assets. But the way rules are enforced plays a critical role in a company’s responsibility in protecting the workforce.

Among a slew of regulations established in a St. Louis auto parts manufacturing company was the requirement that all employees wear safety helmets while working in or passing through designated areas of the plant. A system of progressive discipline was in force to ensure compliance with this rule. Under this arrangement, a worker in violation would first be warned of his offense, and this would be followed by a suspension should the violation be repeated.

Grade II Repairman George Walker was a marginal employee at best. His compliance with safety regulations was no less marginal than compliance with his work responsibilities in general. One day while walking bareheaded through an area featuring prominently posted notices regarding the safety requirement, he was stopped by Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Harry Bruner.

“George, you were warned more than once to wear your safety helmet in this area.”

Walker shrugged. “Sorry, it slipped my mind.”

“That’s tough, because the infraction is going to cost you a week’s suspension.”

Walker was either stunned or put on a good act. “No way!!” he protested. “I can name you at least three or four guys who were called down more than once for not wearing helmets and weren’t suspended.”

“You have got to draw the line somewhere,” Bruner replied. “That somewhere is now.”

Walker threatened a grievance.

Question: Will Walker’s suspension hold up?

Jenson’s verdict: “Withdraw the suspension,” Plant Engineer Mark Jensen instructed Bruner when apprised of the facts. “Walker should be suspended,” he added. “But so should those other guys he mentioned who got away with it. You’re the victim of your own laxity. Any employee who violates a safety rule should be disciplined. But discipline must be administered equally. You can’t slap a suspension on one rule-breaker because of his marginal rating and bypass another.”

Retirement: Making it palatable

Maintenance Planner George Luckman wasn’t the same man he was a decade or two ago. At age 65, he was slower on the uptake, made occasional errors, and too often fell behind schedule. Maintenance Foreman Jake Norton stated the case to Maintenance Manager Arthur Forstman. “Art, I can no longer depend on the guy.”

Although most people in the plant retired at age 65 or less, the company had no mandatory retirement age.

It would make life easier, Forstman agreed, if George decided to cash in his chips, but, as he told Norton, “After 30 yr on the job, how can you make the man step down when some are permitted to work into their late 60s and 70s?”

Forstman had no answer for that.

“Let’s have a talk with Dave,” the manager suggested.

If Plant Engineer David Gross had any ideas, they wanted to hear them.

Question: In the plant engineer’s shoes, what action would you take to induce Luckman to retire gracefully?

Gross’s suggestion: “How do you feel about it?” Gross asked Norton and Forstman. “Would you like to replace George or what?” The two men exchanged looks. “Replace him,” Forstman replied. Norton agreed. The plant engineer nodded. “I don’t know how long George plans to keep working,” he said. “But we have nothing to lose: In cases like this, a sweetener might do the trick.” Forstman picked up the cue. “You’re talking about severance pay?” “No law says we have to pay it. But in a case like this it might be it.” It was. When Luckman was offered a modest but attractive package to step down, he accepted readily. “Maybe we should include the severance option as a policy in the employee handbook,” Forstman suggested. “That’s not usually a good idea,” Gross replied. “The situation varies from case to case. It makes better sense to keep mum and retain flexibility.”

Employee refuses temporary transfer

In most cases, management reserves the right to make temporary transfers to fill short-term gaps in the workforce. Where no definition appears in the labor agreement, ‘temporary’ is often restricted to a 30-day limit. But does that mean a worker must accept a temporary transfer without protest or complaint? Usually, yes, but not all the time. Every rule has, or should have, its exceptions.

Work projects in the department were at a low ebb. When Welder First Class James Donovan completed a job, he was asked by Maintenance Supervisor Rick Martin to do him a favor and scrape off the rust and paint the railing in front of the plant. That should keep you going for a couple of weeks. The welder’s response was short and not so sweet. “You have got to be kidding!”

“What’s the big deal?” Martin replied. “I have no jobs to assign you for the next week or so. It’s better than sitting around or being laid off.”

“No way!” Donovan protested. “I’m a welder first grade. I don’t have to accept routine utility chores. I’d rather be laid off.”

Donovan was a good man, and Martin didn’t want to lose him.

“How about a little cooperation here,” Martin persisted. “The rule is that unless the contract specifically spells out an employee’s right to refuse a temporary assignment, he has to accept it.”

“Not if the assignment’s unreasonable,” the welder protested.

Question: Does Donovan have a right to refuse the assignment?

Bell’s verdict: “Find a higher-level fill-in task for Jim if you don’t want to lay him off,” Plant Engineer Ralph Bell instructed Martin. “He’s within his rights claiming that a routine utility chore would be demeaning and undermine his status. In situations like this you sometimes have to respect the way a guy feels.”

Must you pay for holiday that falls during vacation?

Most arbitrators rule that eligible employees are entitled to holiday pay even if the holiday falls while the worker is on vacation. Some employers, however, feel they can get around this requirement.

Sarah Manginello, a utility worker in the maintenance department of a Philadelphia machine parts manufacturing company, entered the first week of July for her vacation preference.

Maintenance Foreman Alex Yuelys frowned at the entry. “Please take another week, Sarah. We’re going to be short handed at that time.”

“It’s the only week I can take,” she persisted. “My husband’s on vacation that week, and it’s the only week he can get.”

Yuelys reluctantly approved the request.

When Manginello returned to work and received her first paycheck, she made a beeline to the foreman’s desk.

“What’s the problem?”

“I’ve been short-changed on this check. My holiday pay for the Fourth was omitted.”

“You’re not entitled to holiday pay. The holiday occurred while you were on vacation.”

“That’s not fair,” Manginello protested. “I’m entitled to holiday pay whenever it occurs.”

The foreman shook his head. “Take a look at the contract. It states that to be paid for a holiday you have to work the day before and the day after.”

“I’m not sitting still for this,” the worker threatened.

Question: Is Sarah correct in her demand for holiday pay?

Drummond’s decision: “Sarah is qualified for the holiday pay,” Plant Engineer Bruce Drummond advised Yuelys. “The holiday-during-vacation clause must be considered apart from the work-test clause. Otherwise, employees would have to show up at the plant even when they were on vacation. That wouldn’t make sense.”

What happens to seniority when companies merge?

When a small company — we’ll call Apex — was acquired by a medium-size company — we’ll call Ajax — employees of both plants were apprehensive. Ajax workers worried their seniority would be jeopardized. Apex people feared they would be stuck at the bottom of the list. Employees of both companies were afraid of being laid off due to their jobs being duplicated.

The duplication concern was unjustified. With expansion plans in mind, other jobs were found for workers whose duties overlapped.

The day the acquisition went into effect, Maintenance Foreman Felix Randolph posted an announcement on the bulletin board.

Acquired Apex employees will be absorbed into Ajax’s seniority roster in order by the individual’s date of hire by his or her respective employerThe Management

Apex workers, having feared the worst, were understandably pleased. Ajax people were no less understandably unhappy.

“It’s a rip-off,” a welder complained. “It took me years to achieve the seniority I now enjoy.”

A machine repairman agreed. “It’s not fair for our seniority to be shot because another plant was acquired.”

The lineup was six deep at Randolph’s desk.

“It’s important that we work together as a team and cooperate,” he told the gripers. “We don’t want the Apex people to feel like second-class citizens.”

This didn’t soothe the complainants. Grievances were threatened.

Question: If you were in charge what action, if any, would you take?

Kim’s response: “If you refer the gripers to Clause 396 in the labor agreement,” Plant Engineer Henry Kim told Randolph, “it should nip this dispute in the bud.” Turning to page 173 of the contract, he read: “If the company should merge with or acquire another company, seniority standings in both companies shall be combined into a single list in order of the date of hire of each worker by his or her original employer.” Kim smiled at Randolph. “In a situation like this, it’s a handy clause to have around.”

When do job changes warrant a pay rate increase?

The small-to-medium-size processing plant, a division of a large eastern paper products manufacturing company, was a progressive, up-to-date operation. Over the course of the past year or so, a number of machine changes and procedural modifications were made.

With the time approaching for negotiation of a new labor agreement, a committee of three employees, with Mechanic Grade II Ed Stoker acting as spokesperson, appeared at Maintenance Supervisor Joel Hewitt’s desk claiming that job changes had created additional work and increased responsibility for selected workers who had been affected by the changes.

To support his claim, Stoker pointed out a clause in the contract that ran as follows:

F.2 – It is understood that on occasion changing conditions and alterations may require base and incentive rate adjustments. If warranted under such circumstances, appropriate adjustments will be negotiated. Hewitt dismissed Stoker’s claim out of hand. “The changes you refer to were minor,” he maintained. “A rate increase isn’t warranted.”

The committee refused to settle for this. “Individually,” Stoker persisted, “you might argue that most of the changes were minor. But there were enough of them to make a significant difference. Taken in the aggregate, they add up to a major change. A wage adjustment is clearly warranted.”

Question: How do you feel about Stoker’s contention?

Warren’s verdict: When the dispute was dumped in his lap, Plant Engineer John Warren reviewed the changes made in recent months. Although most could be construed to be minor, he agreed with the mechanic that the accumulation added up to a significantly increased workload for a handful of employees. He suggested, “Let’s sit down and talk about this on a case-by-case basis.” The committee was amenable to this suggestion.

Should he be paid travel time for emergency work?

Several people told Repair Specialist Luke Rudiwitz he was nuts working at a plant an hour and a half from his home. But Rudiwitz enjoyed his work, and he liked his company. When hired 18 yr before, he lived less than a half hour from work. He decided to move further away from the city because it was good for the kids, and he loved the additional space. Extra travel was a price he was willing to pay.

Rudiwitz’s normal quitting time was 5:30 p.m. One evening at 8 p.m., he received a call at home from his boss, Maintenance Foreman Al Sherman.

“Luke, you have to help me out.”

The plant had run into a problem with a special shaping machine that was needed to complete an order for a key customer. Rudiwitz was the resident expert on the shaper. The shipment was already behind schedule. Production had scheduled an extra shift in an effort to get the goods shipped without falling further behind. When the shaper went down, the shift had ground to a halt.

“If we don’t get the stuff trucked out tomorrow, we’re in deep trouble,” Sherman told Rudiwitz.

It was no fun after working a complete shift to get dressed, hop into his car, and drive an hour and a half back to the plant. But Rudiwitz, a conscientious and hard-working employee, didn’t complain. It was part of the job. Once at the plant, it took him two hours to track down the problem and get the shaper in operation.

The next day, Rudiwitz put in an overtime slip for five hours.

Sherman frowned at the slip. “How do you figure five hours; you had the trouble tracked down in two?”

“Plus three hours travel time,” Rudiwitz replied. “The job was an emergency. I’m entitled to travel time.”

Sherman disagreed. “The 4-hour minimum call-in doesn’t apply since you already worked a full shift. And overtime for emergency travel only applies if the emergency is at a customer’s plant.”

Rudiwitz didn’t protest, but the disgruntled look on his face said it all.

Question: In Sherman’s shoes would you give Rudiwitz travel pay?

Mackey’s response: That morning Plant Engineer Bill Mackey remarked to Sherman, “I hear you ran into a problem with the shaper last night.” “The machine was down. I had to bring Luke in to trouble-shoot it. He put in for three hours emergency travel time. I explained that under the emergency travel time provision, overtime didn’t apply in this case.” Mackey said, “Some rules are to be bent. Give Luke the extra three hours.”

Overtime compensation

With the economy faltering, it was belt-tightening time at the plant. This put Maintenance Supervisor Gus Lee in a bind. The plant manager’s “no overtime” mandate was in effect. Only in the case of emergency could an exception be made.

Could the rewiring job that had to be done be considered an emergency?

Well, not exactly, Lee reasoned, although Lab Manager Fred Folsom sounded ready to erupt if the rewiring wasn’t completed by the morning shift.

He approached Electrician Grade I Hank Moffit.

“We’ve got a problem, Hank.”

“The lab-wiring job?”

“Exactly. The problem is that overtime’s been restricted. How about if you put in the overtime, and instead of getting time-and-a-half for it, you get an hour-and-a-half off for each hour?”

Question: Is this a good idea?

Expert’s opinion: The next day, the electrician appeared at Lee’s desk. “I’m afraid that in accepting overtime pay in time off instead of cash I might be breaking the law.”

When Lee filled his boss in, Plant Engineer Jack Rosen gave Labor Attorney Anna Grimaldi a call. “It’s no big deal,” the lawyer replied. “But as a general rule, comp time in payment for overtime isn’t allowed. Pay Moffit for the four hours”