Human Side – 2003-10-10 – 2003-10-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor October 10, 2003

The 90-day seniority rule

Is it in effect in your plant?

If there’s one thing you can count on in this messed up universe, it is the inevitability of change. The economic climate changes, product design and content changes, customer demands change, methodology changes, and in manufacturing plants from coast to coast manpower requirements change in response to changing conditions. A good test of an effective executive is his or her ability to predict and plan for change.

But however skilled a manager may be, the unexpected occurs. That can cause even the most astute planner to slip up from time to time. That’s exactly what happened in a St. Louis plant when a large order was cancelled when a customer, forced to close down due to a fire, had to suspend operations indefinitely. Two months prior, in anticipation of the order, two dozen workers had been hired.

A staff meeting was held. In response to the cancelled order it was decided to lay off nine of the new hires, two in production, and Tom Stimson, a maintenance employee. Minutes after the announcement was posted, George Van Delft, a maintenance man slated for layoff, appeared at Maintenance Foreman Nick Brogan’s desk.

“You made a mistake,” he informed the supervisor. “Stimson should have been laid off, not me.”

“How do you figure that?”

“I was hired a week before Stimson. I have better seniority.”

“That’s not exactly true,” Brogan conceded. “Both of you were hired within the last 90 days. Neither one of you has seniority.”

Van Delft decided to contest that decision.

Question: Is Brogan correct in his assertion? Should Van Delft be retained?

Turner’s verdict: Plant Engineer Sam Turner agreed with the foreman. He advised Brogan to point out to Van Delft the clause in the contract headed “90 Day Probationary Period.” The paragraph stated, “Seniority standing does not take effect until after the first 90 days. Prior to that time, an employee can be transferred, demoted, or laid off at the sole discretion of management.”

Employee health problems

Should he be permitted to continue his job?

Maintenance Painter Grade II Jeff Kusich had a health problem that might not have been so serious were it not for his job. He was subject to occasional fainting spells. Jeff had undergone scores of tests, from MRIs to brain scans. To date, no specific diagnosis spelled out the cause of the spells. One doctor suspected stress; another felt it might be hereditary.

Thus far, the worker was fortunate in one respect. He had never passed out at a time when it might have constituted a serious hazard to himself or coworkers. Fortunate or not, Jeff’s condition was of concern to Maintenance Supervisor George Hasting. The guy had fainted once to his knowledge while on a painting assignment in the store room. Another time, he passed out in the lab. Hasting suspected that the fumes from the paint itself could be the culprit. But this had been checked out more than once with no definitive finding.

Nonetheless, Hasting speculated, “What if the guy passes out while on a ladder or at work on a scaffolding?”

“Good question,” his boss, Plant Engineer Bill Clifford, agreed. “Should that happen, he could do serious damage to himself or someone else.”

Clifford picked up the phone and got the company’s labor attorney, Anita Held, on the line.

Question: What advice would you give?

Held’s response: “What you’re really asking,” Held told Clifford, “is whether or not Jeff Kusich should be permitted to continue on the job. How often is he on the kind of job where passing out could be a hazard to himself or others?”

“Fairly often. It wouldn’t be practical to limit his assignments to a non-hazardous work environment.”

“In that case, it is the employer’s responsibility to find out if, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, proof of a ‘direct threat’ can be determined. An investigation must be conducted to assess risk, duration, and severity of the potential harm involved.”

Can you subcontract a job if a competent worker objects?

Joe Hemmer approached Maintenance Supervisor Frank Hobson’s desk.

“What can I do for you, Joe?”

You know the imaging job that has to be done in Building Two? According to the grapevine you’re planning to subcontract that out.”

“That’s right.”

“I can save the company money. I can come in on Saturday and handle the job. Everyone benefits.”

“Sorry, Joe. The job calls for a special infrared camera with ‘drag and drop’ capability. We don’t have that equipment.”

Hemmer believed he could do the job with a camera on hand. Hobson disagreed with him.

Hemmer persisted. “The labor agreement contains a clause prohibiting outside contracting when an employee can handle the work.”

“Not if special equipment is needed that would be too costly to buy for a one-time job.”

“But I’m sure I could do it.”

“I’m sure you can’t. It’s my decision to make. If I thought it could be done without the infrared camera I would assign you the work.”

Hemmer threatened to grieve.

Question: Should Hemmer be given a crack at the job?

Kowolsky’s verdict: Plant Engineer Rudy Kowolsky supported Hobson’s decision. “Whether or not the work can be done with existing equipment is the supervisor’s decision to make.”

Is a paid time off plan right for you?

Maintenance Department Painter Tom Herroldson didn’t confine his painting expertise to the job. He was an amateur artist in his spare time, watercolor and oils. His hobby was important to him.

One day he approached his boss’s desk and requested two days time off to attend an art course.

Maintenance Supervisor Ernie Hoffer frowned in response. He was at a loss as to how to handle this. The time Herroldson requested wasn’t sick leave, and he didn’t want it to apply as vacation.

The company was an equal employment employer with good employee relations. Hoffer sympathized with Herroldson’s request and admired him for his dedication and enthusiasm to the hobby he loved. He granted the employee the two days off, explaining that he would be docked for the time. What bothered him was that Tom, who still had sick time due, had been honest enough to state his true reason for the absence. He could as easily have faked illness.

Hoffer raised the issue with his boss.

Question: The situation isn’t that unusual. Do you have any ideas on the subject?

Resnick’s suggestion: “This company may be a good candidate for a paid time off program,” Plant Engineer Phil Resnick told Hoffer. “According to Personnel Policy Service, Inc., a paid time off bank gives employees ‘a set number of paid days off a year and then lets them choose how the days will be used.’ That would apply in Tom’s case. Or suppose an employee needed time off to care for a sick parent— neither vacation nor sick leave —the time off bank would accommodate it. The person wouldn’t have to fake illness to get the time, and he’d be more inclined to give advance notice as well. If we decide to go ahead with this, we’ll have to take care to identify cases applicable to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). PTO may be a program worth investigating. I’ll bring it up at the next executive meeting.”

Case lost at arbitration

When a group leader opening unexpectedly occurred, Maintenance Foreman Harry Randolph lost no time appointing Jerry Klein to the job.

This brought 62-yr-old Jonas Tremark to Randolph’s desk with the speed of an express train.

“Jerry’s promotion is unfair,” Tremark claimed, “I was next in line for that job.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Point one, I’m as well qualified as Jerry. Point two, I have better seniority.”

“You’re correct on point two,” Randolph conceded, “but you’re wrong on point one. In my judgment, Jerry is better qualified. It’s my responsibility to appoint the best qualified man to the job.”

Tremark refused to settle for that explanation. He claimed that Randolph had decided against him because of his age. The case eventually went to arbitration, and the worker lost.

Tremark wasn’t a guy to give up easily. “I’m not sitting still for this. I’m going to appeal to a higher authority.”

“Be my guest.”

Question: Having lost at arbitration does Temark have the right of further appeal?

Maynard’s decision: “Even though Jonas lost,” Plant Engineer informed Randolph, “he still has a right to appeal to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. An arbitration decision that involves a discrimination charge relating to age, gender, race, or religion is not necessarily binding. If he wishes, Jonas can appeal to the E.E.O.C. and reopen the whole can of worms.”

How long can you wait when discipline is called for?

Assistant Maintenance Foreman George Cohen reported to his boss, “Grimes and Delgado are at it again.”

Cohen accompanied Kreissman to the compounding lab where the two men were exchanging blows. Bitter enemies, they had clashed on previous occasions. Fighting was a well-defined no-no in this plant. Weeks before both had been warned that they would be suspended, or worse, if it happened again.

At the scene Delgado’s nose was already bloodied. The foreman broke up the fight.

“That does it,” Kreissman informed the men. “You guys asked for it, and you’re going to get it.”

Get what? The foreman didn’t elaborate. He ordered Grimes and Delgado back to work.

“What’s the deal?” Cohen asked his boss.

“Those guys act like a couple of kids. I’m going to suspend them both for a week, but not now at the start of the peak season when we’re on heavy overtime.”

Ten weeks later the workload started to ease. Kreissman hadn’t forgotten about the discipline he had promised the men.

One Friday afternoon he approached Grimes and Delgado. “I’ll see you guys a week from Monday,” he said, “as he handed them one-week suspensions.”

“You can’t discipline us now,” Grimes protested. “The fight was more than two months ago.”

Delgado echoed the contention and threatened to file a grievance.

Question: Is Kreissman in the right?

Dooley’s decision: “Cancel the suspension,” Plant Engineer Frank Dooley said. “If they file a grievance they may win. Arbitrators agree that if discipline is handed out, it must be done within a reasonable time after the infraction.”

Eager beaver gets promotion

Grade One Electrician Ed Sperling was naturally disappointed when Joe Pffening won the bid for the group leader job that had been posted. He’d had his sights set on the promotion himself.

“It was a close call,” Maintenance Foreman Carl Hoffman told him. “You’re a good man. Keep trying.”

That’s exactly what Sperling intended to do. He didn’t know when the next group leader job would pop open. But he filed an application for the job nonetheless.

When, six months later, a group leader opted for early retirement, Sperling was quick to put in his bid.

“Perseverance pays,” Hoffman said, shaking Ed’s hand when he broke the good news.

Sperling’s promotion triggered a swift response from Electrician Grade One Tony Dinero. “That promotion should be mine,” he beefed. “I’m as well qualified as Ed, and I have better seniority.”

“Maybe so,” the foreman conceded. “But Ed took the initiative to apply in advance for the job. It goes to him.”

“That’s a ripoff. I’m not sitting still for this.”

Hoffman shrugged. “Be my guest.”

Question: Who should get the promotion: Sperling or Dinero?

Carson’s decision: “Sperling gets the nod,” Plant Engineer Don Carson ruled. “You might point out to Tony Clause 154 in the labor agreement. It reads that when prior applicants and nonapplicants apply for promotion, the applicant gets the preference. If more than one applicant bids for the job, all things being equal, that is where seniority counts.”

Should work be fun?

Two friends, both electricians — we’ll call them Jim and John — were discussing their jobs. Both were day-shift employees at midsized plants and earned comparable incomes. But Jim’s job attitude was so-so; John enjoyed his job and looked forward to coming to work.

Was their work attitudes due to the job, or the man? John was curious. “What’s the problem, Jim? Do you feel you’re not getting a fair shake from the company?”

Jim frowned. “I have no beefs about the company. The problem is that I’m bored. Same thing day in and day out.”

“That is a problem,” John conceded. “I get around that. My boss is smart. He shifts people from job to job. I don’t work on the same thing or in the same place all the time. On one assignment I’m in the lab, and on another I’m in production. On one gig I install a new line; on another I troubleshoot a short circuit. My job is fun.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Jim groused.

Question: How do you feel about Jim’s and John’s conversation?

Expert’s opinion: Robert E. Levinson, vice president of corporate development for Florida-based Lynn University, has made a study of job variety. “Norman Mailer,” he says, “wrote that boredom slays more of existence than war. He’s right. Practically applied job variety helps generate interest and enjoyment. Unrelieved repetition creates boredom.”

A manager can foster variety on most jobs. The trick is to eliminate repetition as much as possible. “Every job contains a certain amount of unavoidable monotony. The more this can be minimized, the more interesting the job.”

Jobs should be fun, Levinson concludes. “Some companies go so far as to organize teambuilding and other activities that allow employees to interact in a relaxed setting. The more enjoyment people get out of their work the more they will look forward to performing it, the better motivated they will be.”

He makes a further point. “Job variety enhances work skills as well. The more different tasks a person can perform, the more useful and productive he will be.”

How do your people feel about how you feel about them?

One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make is to take his people for granted. Hugh Donovan, plant engineer in a New England plant, was becoming increasingly concerned about the high incidence of turnover in the Plant Engineering Department. Too many good men were quitting. Donovan couldn’t understand why. The company’s compensation program was as good as or better than most plants in the area. Same thing for fringe benefits. Management cared about its employees. The company didn’t experience an excessive amount of complaints and grievances. Why then were key personnel leaving?

In an effort to narrow down the problem, the plant engineer studied the latest turnover report, focusing on the department’s eight project groups, A through H. Four groups showed turnover to be normal. Two read well above average. Groups D and F registered the greatest number of quits.

Donovan summoned Group D Project Leader Charley Ruskin and Group F Project Leader Lester Wolfe to his office. He showed them the turnover report.

“Any comments?”

The question was greeted by silence.

“Mind if I talk with some of your people?” Donovan asked.

Wolfe replied, “We could use all the help we can get.” Ruskin nodded agreement.

Question: Hazard a guess. What do you think Donovan might have learned?

The result: Donovan chatted with three well-rated employees from each group. All were reluctant to talk until the plant engineer assured them that his goal was to achieve improvement, not to establish blame. Typical answers follow:

“Charley’s quick to let you know it if you make a mistake. If you do a great job, you don’t hear a word.”

“Lester’s rating system is like a report card. But you don’t really know how you stand with him.”

“Most of the time you don’t hear anything one way or the other. You think you did well. But you don’t know if the boss feels the same way.”

Employees need to know how they stand with the boss. It’s okay to be critical when necessary. But people need recognition as well. A pat on the back when deserved can be a motivational boost. A thank you note to acknowledge a job well done can work wonders. When feedback is missing, some employees imagine the worst. It makes for uneasy relationships and turns people off. That’s the message Donovan got across to Ruskin and Wolfe. It gave them something to think about.

It’s not always easy to get rid of a garnishee

Question: How many garnishments must an employer endure? Sometimes one, sometimes more than one. It depends.

Maintenance department carpenter Don Grubman was a big spender. His problem was that he lacked the financial resources to spend big. One day, unable to make good on a $3200 payment for a computer system complete with monitor and printer plus bells and whistles, he was hit with a garnishment.

The personnel manager summoned Grubman to his office and reprimanded him for his mindless expenditure.

His lecture didn’t take. A month later another garnishment came through, this one smaller than the first. Amy McGrath, who ran the payroll department, beefed to the personnel manager. “This guy constitutes a major headache for the payroll department. It’s gotten to the point where we may have to assign a special task force just to handle the paperwork Grubman’s reckless purchases generates.”

The manager agreed. “The sooner we get rid of this guy, the better.”

He handed Grubman a discharge notice.

“You can’t fire me,” the carpenter protested. “It’s illegal.”

“You’ve got that wrong, my friend. It may be against the law to fire you for a single garnishment. But when you come up with multiple garnishments it’s a different matter entirely.”

Grubman persisted in his disagreement. “My first garnishment is so large it covers the maximum deduction that can be made. It’ll take a long time for the deductions to settle it. In the meantime I plan to get that second garnishment paid up so that payroll won’t have to make another deduction.”

Question: Can Grubman be fired for his multiple garnishments?

Expert’s opinion: “The carpenter is right,” the company’s labor attorney, Ann Griffin, told the manager. “According to state law, so long as a garnishment absorbs the full amount of legally admissible deductions, Grubman cannot be fired until the time occurs that another garnishment can be made.”

Supervisor pitches in

Maintenance Foreman John Raskin was expecting a delivery on the following day of parts. It was a small operation, and Raskin learned that the regular receiving clerk was on vacation and his replacement was out sick.

The foreman checked the next day and was told the employee was still sick.

“We really need those parts,” he informed the guard. “Let me know when the truck arrives.”

The guard appeared at 3 p.m. to tell Raskin the delivery had been made and no one was on the platform to receive it.

The foreman went out to the platform, signed in for the shipment, and transported the cartons to the stockroom.

When Shop Steward Frank Russo got word, he let out a howl. “A supervisor taking over bargaining unit work,” he protested “is a violation of the labor agreement. It wasn’t an emergency.”

Question: Does Russo have a point?

Berner’s decision: “Russo is correct in his contention that an emergency did not exist,” Plant Engineer Bill Berner said. “The situation could have been avoided had Raskin had the foresight to call the supplier and postpone delivery.”