Human side – 2005-03-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor March 10, 2005

Planning a large layoff? Take care

Plant Engineer Hank Selleck had sweated hard times before, but never this tough. The small tool manufacturing plant employed 96 people. The introduction of new technology and other industry changes had all but destroyed the viability of the company’s major product line that accounted for much of its sales and profits.

Profits. The word left a sour taste in Selleck’s mouth. Declining sales had produced losses during the past two quarters. The slump showed no signs of relenting unless the new line took off and began to pay off. But that could take time, a long time. The sales team was selling hard. But until the turnaround took place – if it ever took place – they wouldn’t be able to hold up much longer given the current loss situation. Two or three months, maybe four.

“Hank, there’s no sense kidding ourselves. The shoe’s got to drop.” That’s the way Plant Manager Mike Herman, who doubled as executive VP, put it.

He didn’t have to spell it out. A mass layoff – probably 50 workers or more – seemed inevitable. The problem was how to go about it. Should they give the crew advance notice? More to the point, were they required or obligated to notify the work force, and if so, when?

Question : Do you think the crew should receive advance notice?

Management’s decision : At a top executive meeting, the president brought the WARN Act to the group’s attention. Its provisions require a company to provide 60 days advance notice when a large-scale layoff is anticipated.

The Act’s obvious purpose was to allow time for affected employees to find other work or arrange for training if necessary.

“We don’t have to worry about that,” Human Relations Vice President Harriet Lester said. “WARN applies only to employers with at least a hundred employees. That lets us out.”

“If the new line takes off,” Mike Herman noted, “the layoff may be of short duration, if its needed at all.”

It was a big if.

“In my opinion,” Selleck said, “whether required or not, I think we should level with our people. Explain the situation and let them decide for themselves if they want to stay with the boat or pull their oars.”

The president said thoughtfully, “That would be the fair and decent course to take.”

When a plant moves, what’s the effect on seniority?

The lease was up, and after a half dozen meetings, planning executives couldn’t agree with the landlord on rent and other details. There was no choice but to relocate. When a good site was found in a neighboring state, only half the problem was solved. In addition to the hundreds of odds, ends, and questions that crop up when a plant moves, Plant Engineer Mike Melluski brought up another one.

“What happens to seniority?” he asked at a top-level meeting.

“Good question,” the president replied.

Actually, the question turned out to be easier to answer than at first supposed. An investigative team had been appointed to determine working conditions, wage levels, housing opportunities, etc. in the town where the plant change would take place. When this task was completed the executive team went to work.

Question : What effect should a plant move have on seniority? How should the decision be made?

PE’s approach : “Since you brought up the question,” the president told Melluski, “I hereby appoint you a committee of one to come up with the answer.”

Melluski, in cooperation with Human Resources Manager Fred Taylor, arranged interview sessions with key employees to see how they felt about moving. Half agreed to relocate. Some opted out; others weren’t sure. Certain considerations were prime. One was that staffing availability in the new area left much to be desired. Another was that employees held their seniority to be sacrosanct. A third was that local shopping and school locations were somewhat less convenient in the new area.

With this in mind, and considering management’s strong desire to retain as many good people as possible, a decision was reached that wage levels would be held firm and fringe benefits of workers retained.

Housing assistance would be provided, and seniority rights carried over. As a result the majority of employees went along with the move.

Only one applicant: Must you consider him?

Maintenance Supervisor Charley Redlich growled to Jake Spatz, his assistant. “This is ridiculous.” He had waited three days after posting an opening for Setup Man on the bulletin board. Only one man, Mechanic Class B Andy Genero, had put in a bid. Unfortunately, Genero’s skills fell far short of his ambition.

“Genero’s about as qualified for setup man,” Redlich groused, “as I am for ballet dancer.”

Spatz agreed.

“Call Personnel,” Redlich instructed. “We’ll have to get a guy from outside.”

Next day Genero approached the supervisor to check on the status of his bid for the job.

“Good try,” Redlich replied. “But putting in a bid doesn’t mean you are eligible. If it did I’d put in a bid for plant manager. Since you’re the only guy who bid for the job we’ll have to go outside to fill it.”

The mechanic refused to settle for this response. “I can handle that job. I’m at least entitled to a crack at it.”

His boss disagreed.

Genero threatened to file a grievance.

Redlich shrugged. “File away.”

Question : Does the mechanic deserve a chance at the job?

Crowley’s verdict : “I give Genero credit for the high opinion he has of himself,” Plant Engineer Chuck Crowley told Redlich when the case was called to his attention. “But the possibility of a marginally productive Class B mechanic qualifying as a setup man is as remote as the northern tip of Alaska. Proceed with placing that ad. This company does its best to promote employees from within. But there’s such a thing as going too far.”

Can you make job classification changes unilaterally?

The question was posed by Maintenance Foreman Don Jablonski to Unit Representative Frank Dominick: “What’s the problem?”

“It’s the new job classifications,” the welder replied. “The guys feel they’ve been screwed.”

The “guys” referred to were employed in the new maintenance department group that had been established in this nonunion plant. Dominick headed the Workforce Negotiating Committee that had been formed with the objective of dealing harmoniously with labor-management problems.

“What are they beefing about?” Jablonski asked. “An exhaustive study was conducted by a team of time study experts from the engineering department. Those guys know their business.”

“Maybe so,” Domnick conceded, “but the crew is unhappy.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“We want to bring in a team of outside time study experts to review and evaluate the new standards.”

“That’s a duplication that would mean a lot of extra time and expense.”

Dominick refused to back down. “I thought the Workforce committee was supposed to have been formed to settle disputes and avoid the need for a union.”

Jablonski sighed. “I’ll take it up with the boss.”

Question : Should the workforce have a say when it comes to setting up time standards?

Turner’s decision : “Let them bring in their own experts,” Plant Engineer Greg Turner ruled. “If this were a union plant they’d be entitled to do that. These people deserve no less consideration.”

Can you fire a flawed team player?

Maintenance Foreman George Romanosky declared., “That does it! You’re out of here. You can clock out now. Your final paycheck will be mailed to you within a week.”

The discharge victim was Carpenter Grade II Gerald Shea, an aggressively hostile employee who was unable to get along with coworkers. He would flare up at the hint of a perceived insult, gripe about work assignments he didn’t like, and often disrupted the workflow. On at least a half dozen occasions in the past year he had been involved in fistfights that most often he himself had provoked.

The latest incident was the last straw so far as Romanosky was concerned. In a dispute with Jim Tourneau, a production worker, Shea in a rage had whacked Tourneau on the head with a wrench sending him to the nurse’s office for treatment.

Shea refused to take the dismissal sitting down. “You can’t fire me just like that. Whatever happened to progressive discipline around here?”

“You were warned about your behavior more than once in the past. This is it, buddy.”

“That’s not progressive discipline. I was never even suspended.”

“Well, you are now for good.”

“Oh yeah! We’ll see about that.”

Question : Was Romanosky justified in firing Shea?

Wolfson’s verdict : “Shea stays fired,” Plant Engineer Ralph Edelman ruled. “With a continuing negative attitude, and incidents of violent and disruptive behavior, those past warnings are more than enough progressive discipline to warrant this loser’s dismissal.”

Is taking unauthorized fireable offense?

Maintenance Supervisor Frank Herreld hurled a few choice words at Mechanic Grade II Charley Garfield: “You’ve had it, Garfield. What you did in effect was to steal time from the company.”

“I was just doing my job,” Garfield protested.

“That’s what your regular shift is for. No one authorized you to stay overtime to finish it.”

“No one said I shouldn’t. I thought you wanted me to finish the job.”

“You should have used your head. What did you think that buzzer means when it sounds at five o’clock?”

“You kept telling me to get my report in at the end of the shift.”

“That doesn’t mean during the next shift. A blind man can see you’ve been squeezing out extra dough at the expense of the company.”

“That’s not true,” Garfield protested. “I was just trying to follow instructions.”

“You had plenty time to write your report during your shift.”

The mechanic disagreed. “That’s not always the case. We’ve been very busy lately.”

Herreld refused to back down and handed Garfield a discharge slip. The employee filed a grievance at once.

Question : Does Garfield’s alleged “theft of time” warrant his being fired?

Marino’s verdict : “Change the discipline to a reprimand,” Plant Engineer Phil Marino ordered Herreld. “You can’t prove that the worker was stalling during his shift in order to extend his hours. Also, his claim that the workload has been heavy in recent weeks has some merit. Finally, you weren’t firm enough in setting time lines for work performed. Without real evidence of malingering, discharge, and even suspension, are too harsh under the circumstances.”

Passing a test in order to bump

When an Instrument Mechanic job opening was posted on the bulletin board, Field Mechanic Ernie Stohler jumped at the chance. Ernie had the seniority and believed he was due for a promotion.

He appeared next morning at Maintenance Foreman John Kellog’s desk.

“What’s the problem?”

“No problem. It’s about that posting for instrument mechanic. I’d like to bump into the job.”

Kellog looked doubtful. “That’s a tough transition to make. Instrument mechanic’s a whole different kettle of fish from what you’ve been doing.”

“No problem,” Ernie assured him. “I’m a quick study. I’ll pick it up in no time.”

Kellog checked Stohler’s seniority. “You may be able to bump up if you can pass the QT test.”

“I didn’t know a test was involved.”

“There is. You get a manual to study and ten hours of training. After that, if you pass the test you’re in; if you flunk it you’re out.”

“Fair enough,” Stohler said.

Kellog gave him the manual and picked Instrument Mechanic Bill Linden for the training chore.

Linden’s interest was somewhat less than enthusiastic. Never having had to pass the QT test himself, he made no attempt to address it. After six hours or so he told the trainee that was it as far as he was concerned.

Two days later Stohler took the QT test and bombed.

“Sorry,” Kellog said. “Seniority’s just one factor. You can’t bump into the job if you flunk the test.”

“I didn’t get a fair chance,” Stohler protested and threatened to grieve.

Question : Should the mechanic get another crack at the job?

O’Neil’s decision : “Stohler deserves another chance at the test and the job,” Plant Engineer George O’Neil told Kellog after hearing out Ernie’s grievance. “Providing inadequate training is worse than no training at all. Give him his full training stint by a qualified instructor who will make an honest effort to give him a fair crack at the job. In my view, Linden doesn’t fill the bill.”