Human side – 2005-02-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor February 10, 2005

Voluntary stepdown

What rate of pay?

Class I Welder Juan Gomez had sensitive nostrils. He sniffed a change in the wind. He had too much time on his hands without jobs being assigned. His classification was overstaffed, a situation management wouldn’t abide for long. The layoff season was at hand any day now. At least so Gomez reasoned.

He also reasoned better safe than sorry. With his family expenses, Gomez couldn’t afford a layoff.

With this thought in mind, he approached Maintenance Supervisor Henry Carmichael’s desk.

“What’s up, Juan?”

Gomez expressed his concern to his boss.

Carmichael frowned. “I can’t deny it. The ax could fall any day now. And with your seniority…”

“What if I transferred to Class II on a temporary basis. When business picks up I can switch back to Class I?”

“That’s good thinking, Juan. Your job would be safer, at least for a while.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

The paperwork was put into the works, and Gomez was transferred from Class I to Class II. The welder was satisfied with the arrangement until payday rolled around. He hadn’t expected to receive a cut in his rate.

Carmichael said, “You can’t expect to receive the Class I rate when you worked at Class II.”

Question : Should Gomez retain his Class I rate?

Bell’s decision : “Class II work calls for Class II rate,” Plant Engineer Harold Bell told Carmichael. “The transfer was made voluntarily at Juan’s request. Had it been initiated by management at the company’s convenience, he would have received his regular rate. Juan made the decision to avoid being laid off. He can protect his job, but he can’t freeze his rate. He can’t have it both ways.”

Lessons learned

Too harsh is simply tough enough

Some lessons are best learned the hard way. Plant Engineer Bob Weintraub had a long and strong memory. The prohibition against the possession or consumption of alcohol in the plant had been in effect since well before Weintraub’s tenure.

But it had not been rigidly enforced until two years ago when Mechanic Grade II Jerome Shea, an employee “under the influence,” had attacked a coworker with a wrench and inflicted injuries that resulted in blindness. The employees having been discharged wasn’t enough to satisfy Weintraub. He vowed to himself that in the future any worker caught drunk in the plant on his watch would get the book thrown at him.

The PE had that vow in mind the day Maintenance Supervisor Vince Lopata appeared at his desk trailed by Chet Kaufman, a welder, and Unit Representative Bernie Halliday.

What now? Weintraub wondered. But his suspicions were aroused when the odor of beer drifted to his nostrils.

They were confirmed soon when Lopata handed him a discharge notice for “possession and consumption of an alcoholic beverage during working hours.”

Halliday protested, “all the guy did was drink a can of beer.”

“Beer is not sold in this plant,” Weintraub pointed out.

“So what? He had the can in his tool box,” Halliday said. “I’ll concede that’s a violation. But it wasn’t rye or gin. It was just a crummy can of beer. No one’s going to get drunk on a can of beer. It’s no big deal. I can see a short suspension. But dismissal is too harsh a penalty.”

Question : Do you agree with Halliday that Shea’s violation wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant the harshest of disciplines?

Weintraub’s ruling : “In my opinion,” the plant engineer told Halliday, “Kaufman’s violation is a very big deal. I’m sure Ben Jenkins would agree with me. The dismissal stands.”

Jenkins was the employee who had been blinded two years before when, in a drunken rage, mechanic Jerry Shea had attacked him. The reminiscence was enough to convince the unit rep who simply shrugged and turned away.

Can you require an exempt employee to account for his time?

George Karlitz, a bright young professional in the plant engineering department, was offended, and he made sure his supervisor, Chief Engineer Vincent Corraglio, knew it.

“It shows a lack of respect,” he claimed, “and automatically lowers my status. I don’t have to stand for it.”

Karlitz was referring to a form Corraglio had presented to him, one he would have to fill out on a daily basis to account for his time on an hourly basis.

His boss assured him that the new requirement did not any way lower his status, nor did it imply a lack of respect on the part of either himself or management.

“In that case it implies a lack of confidence that I am conscientiously doing my job.”

“Not at all,” Corraglio insisted. “You have an excellent performance record with consistently high ratings. We have every confidence in you.”

“Then I shouldn’t have to be treated like a sixth-grade kid or an hourly worker. It’s also against the law; I’m an exempt employee.”

“Quite the contrary,” the chief replied. “The new exemption regulations effective in August 2004 specifically allow management to require professionals and other exempt employees to record their work on an hourly basis with no effect on their exempt status.”

When Karlitz continued to complain, the chief brought his gripe to Plant Engineer Tony Collucci’s attention.

Question : In the plant engineer’s shoes, what steps would you take to mollify Karlitz?

Collucci’s response : The plant engineer summoned Karlitz to his office. “George,” he told the angry staffer, “you misinterpreted the purpose of the new requirement. There are a number of reasons, the most important of which is our need to account for the time spent on projects by exempt employees in order to satisfy customers’ need for access to this information. Other reasons include management’s need to track attendance and ensure that exempt work time is not spent on non-exempt projects or tasks.

“I understand your response to the new regulation, and believe I owe you an apology. This explanation should have been communicated before, not after the fact. As Vince tried to make clear, we’ve always held you in the highest esteem and continue to do so. Now that you understand that the requirement has no bearing at all on your status or management’s evaluation of your work, I’m sure you can appreciate why the information is needed.”

When can you bypass minority employee for promotion?

The question was posed by a coworker to Grade B Welder Maria Valesquez, “Hey, how come you didn’t put in a bid for that Welder Grade A job?”

“What job? I didn’t see any Grade A job posted.”

“It was on the bulletin board. I don’t know how you missed it.”

Maria made a quick trip to the bulletin board. No Welder Grade A posting was in evidence. She accused her coworker of a dirty trick that was done in bad taste.

“I don’t do tricks like that,” her friend replied indignantly. “The job was posted; I saw it myself.”

Maria made a beeline for her boss’s desk.

“What’s the problem?” Maintenance Supervisor Alan Morris asked.

“I’m interested in that Welder Grade A job opening. I want to put in a bid.”

“You’re too late; it’s been filled.”

“Oh yeah, by whom?”

“The guy’s name is Charley Adams if that’s of interest to you. He responded to our ad and has the qualifications we need.”

“With my Grade B training and experience, I’m as well qualified as anyone from the outside.”

“You may be right, but you should’ve bid for the job.”

“I didn’t see it. Still, if I’m qualified I’m entitled to preference over someone who answered an ad. I deserve a crack at the job.”

“Sorry, Maria, like I said, you’re too late.”

It’s a clear case of discrimination, Maria claimed, and threatened to grieve.

Morris shrugged. “That’s your privilege.”

Question : Is Maria entitled to a chance to compete for the job?

Bellson’s ruling : “For how long was that posting on the bulletin board?” Plant Engineer Jeff Bellson asked Morris when Maria’s protest was called to his attention.

“Five days, in line with company policy. When it was taken down, we placed an ad and hired Adams. Eight days had elapsed by the time Maria decided to put in a bid.”

“Send her to my office. I’ll explain why she’s out of luck.”

When Maria appeared, the plant engineer showed her the clause in the contract that placed a five-day limit on all bids for posted vacancies. She had no choice but to thank the plant engineer for seeing her.

Can quitting remove your seniority?

It was the best news Carpenter Grade I Harry Everett had heard in a long time. The large food processing plant that had opened up across town was hiring people, and according to the grapevine, offered 15-20% more pay for good men.

Harry’s income wasn’t below par. But he hadn’t received a boost in over a year despite repeated requests. To make matters worse, he had just been turned down for what he felt was a well-deserved promotion. With bills piling up, he was sure ripe for a wage increase.

When opportunity knocks, Harry reasoned, there’s only one course for a gutsy guy to pursue. So he took off a couple of hours and hightailed it across town to check out the situation first hand. His discussion with the personnel manager went well. Impressed with Harry’s background and special skills, his reaction was promising. He offered to set up an interview with Joe Mooney, the maintenance department head who did the actual hiring.

Harry’s spirits rose even higher when he brought up the subject of money. He couldn’t wait to show for the interview the following week. With his background and training, Mooney would grab him faster than a $10 bill spotted lying in the street.

Harry returned to the job floating on air. The anticipated income hike would solve a slew of financial problems. He was so sure of himself that back at the plant he made a beeline for his supervisor’s desk and gave him a week’s notice. Maintenance Foreman Chuck Riley didn’t hide his irritation.

“This puts the department in a bind, Harry. After all these years on the job, you should give me at least two or three weeks to find a replacement.”

“Sorry, a week’s the best I can do.” Harry hoped to squeeze a week or two of vacation time if he could.

Opportunity most certainly knocked, but not hard enough. Harry’s interview with Mooney went well. The maintenance manager was impressed with his experience and offered him a Carpenter Class II job.”

“Class II? With my experience I’m Class I without question.”

“That may be,” the department head conceded. “But Class I spots are all filled. Maybe in a year or two…”

Carpenter Class I paid even less than he was currently earning.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Harry returned to the plant and informed Riley that he decided not to leave after all.

“You were already terminated,” his boss said. “I can get you back on the payroll, but your seniority will have to start from scratch.”

“That’s a ripoff!” Harry protested.

Riley shrugged. “You should have thought about that before quitting.”

Question : Can Harry demand to get his old seniority restored.

Beckett’s decision : “Harry’s seniority starts from scratch,” Plant Engineer John Beckett ruled. “You can refer him to Clause 1824B in the labor agreement. Seniority automatically terminates when an employee voluntarily resigns. Harry made his own bed. He’ll have to lie in it.”

Is an arbitrator’s ruling sacrosanct?

Employee shock at the bulletin board posting was quickly converted to action. Not only in Maintenance but plant wide.

Because of the sharp sales and profits decline over the past 12 months, employee Christmas bonuses would be eliminated this year. As the economic situation improved, year-end bonus distribution would be resumed.

Welder Grant Richards and Electrician Harold Smollowitz, members of the company’s Labor-Management Relations Committee, appeared at Maintenance Supervisor John Cummings’ desk to protest.

“I’m in the same situation as the rest of the crew,” Cummings sympathized, “but there’s not a thing I can do. I do what I’m told.”

“We’re not sitting for it,” Richards said.

When the Committee’s intention to grieve reached Plant Engineer Tom Turner, he called Human Relations Manager Carol Murray.

“What do you think the verdict will be if this goes to arbitration?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Murray replied.

The grievance did go to arbitration, and the arbitrator ruled for the company. “The profit decline this year has been too steep for the company to afford a bonus. Grievance denied.”

Richards, Smollowitz, and other members from the Labor-Management Relations Committee refused to settle for this decision.

“That arbitrator isn’t the Pope,” Richards declared. “His decision can be overturned.” He took his appeal to the National Labor Relations Board.

Question : Do you think an arbitrator’s ruling is necessarily the be-all and end-all of a case?

Final decision : The N.L.R.B. pointed out that the arbitrator had failed to consider that, for one thing, the plant’s labor agreement specified that management was forbidden to make unilateral changes in wages or fringe benefits while the agreement was in force. And for another thing, as the grievants rightfully claimed, since the bonus had been in force over several years, it represented more than a gratuity on the company’s part. It had become an expected part of the wage package. The arbitrator’s ruling was reversed.

Can employee’s access to arbitration be denied?

Maintenance department Stock Handler Joe Duffy was hotheaded, tough, and aggressive. He enjoyed a good fight and could get involved in one at the drop of a perceived slur. No one would ever define tact as Duffy’s strong suit.

It wasn’t so long ago that Maintenance Foreman Ben Prescott told his assistant after having slapped a suspension on Joe for creating a disturbance in the department, “That guy isn’t long for the world around here.”

Duffy was anti almost everything. The politics and administration of the town where the company was located was no exception.

Visitors were often escorted through the plant by sales personnel or executives. One day two men in business suits on a tour passed by an aisle where Joe was loading boxes onto a shelf. One of them sported a “Brinkly for Mayor” button. That was all it took to irritate Duffy.

He addressed the visitor in an irritable tone. “Don’t tell me you’re supporting that jerk. He should have been kicked out of town years ago.”

The startled visitor replied angrily, “No one’s compelling you to vote for him.”

“If you used your head, you wouldn’t vote for him either.”

The visitor possessed no less a temper than Duffy. Within moments the two men were shouting at each other. Duffy gave the visitor a shove and was shoved back in return. Before long the two men were exchanging blows, with the visitor, being older and smaller, getting the worst of it.

It didn’t take long for the foreman to come racing to the scene. He apologized profusely to the visitor for the stock handler’s behavior. The visitor grunted and moved off down the aisle.

“That’s it, Duffy. You’ve had it in this plant. You can pick up your check at Personnel.”

The stock handler was humbled, but just slightly. “You can’t fire a man for losing his head in an emotional outburst. It can happen to anyone. I’m submitting this case to arbitration. It’s my right.”

Question : Is dismissal too harsh a penalty for the hotheaded stockman?

Berner’s verdict : “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer Sam Berner ruled. “If Duffy decides to make a case of it, show him Clause 1823 of the labor agreement that sites certain specified violations as qualifying the employee for dismissal without the right of access to the arbitration process. These include the use of alcohol or drugs during working hours, the theft of money or company assets, and physical violence to supervisors or customers.

Recall time: Choosing best qualified employee

In response to the slump four months ago, five maintenance employees were laid off as a needed reduction in force was in order. Now that the order flow seemed to be launched on an upsurge, a decision was made to recall a mechanic and carpenter.

Maintenance Supervisor Fred Fallow scanned down the department’s roster and ticked off two names, Mechanic Grade II Ed Cornhauser and Carpenter Grade I Sam Lefkowitz. He picked up the phone and told them the good news.

The men clocked in the next day.

Bright and early on the day after that, Mechanic Grade II Wilbur Brogan showed up at Fallow’s desk.

“What are you doing here?” his boss asked.

“Reporting for work. What else?”

“Who said you were recalled?”

“No one. What I heard was that Ed Cornhauser was recalled.”

“Right; he started work yesterday.”

“I’m here to help you correct that error. Since I have better seniority, I should have been recalled before Ed.”

“Seniority isn’t the only factor when recalls are decided. Ed’s is better than yours by a mile.”

“It’s still in violation of company policy. So long as a senior employee is qualified, he’s supposed to get preference.”

Question : Is Brogan right to contend that the recall should have been his?

Klein’s decision : Plant Engineer George Klein summoned Fallow to his office. “Is Brogan qualified for the job?”

“Yes. But Ed Cornhauser is much better qualified.”

“That’s not reason enough to bypass Brogan.”