Human Side of Engineering – 2000-06-01 – 2000-06-01

By Raymond Dreyfack , Contributing Editor June 1, 2000

Funeral leave pay: How long the entitlement?

When Maintenance Mechanic Jim Russell returned to work Monday, having attended a relative’s funeral on Saturday, he put in a claim for 3 days of funeral leave under the terms of the contract.

“Sorry, Jim,” Maintenance Supervisor Vince Regan told him, “I can only authorize this for Friday.”

“How come? The contract calls for 3 days.”

“Right. Three consecutive working days.”

“Hey, stop nitpicking. I was out 3 consecutive days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”

“Saturday isn’t a work day, neither is Sunday.”

“I’m still entitled to the money. Please check it out to make sure.”

Regan promised to do so.

Question: Is Russell entitled to 3 days funeral leave?

Martin’s decision: “Not under the terms of the contract,” Plant Engineer Harold Martin decided. “Send him to my office and I’ll spell it out for him.”

When Russell appeared, the executive offered him his condolences, expressed regret over his misunderstanding, and pointed out that the contract’s language on the subject was clear and unambiguous. Martin read from the labor agreement: “Funeral leave pay entitlement applies only for 3 consecutive working days prior to the funeral. Consecutive and working are key words. I’m sorry, Jim, but that rules out both Saturday and Sunday.”

Bad idea: Reducing an exempt employee’s pay

Rank-and-filers aren’t the only ones who “act up” in the workplace. They’re just the simplest to discipline by suspension, pay reduction, or, in extreme cases, dismissal. Life isn’t that easy for a manager when an overtime-exempt employee steps out of line. Where termination isn’t called for, suspension can be touchy, and docking even more so. Take the case of Assistant Maintenance Foreman Drew Hascomb.

Hascomb had what might euphemistically be referred to as a “drinking problem.” Although the situation didn’t warrant dismissal as yet, it seemed to be heading in that direction. Something would have to be done, Foreman Flip Gresham decided. But what to do?

Hascomb handled his job competently enough-most of the time. But more than once he’d been observed “under the influence.” Not drunk exactly, but noticeably high. On top of which his attendance record had slipped from bad to worse. And more than once he had not returned from lunch.

When Gresham spoke to him about it he promised to shape up and for a while seemed to be doing so. But the reformation hadn’t lasted for long. The guy was flirting with dismissal. Still, he was a 12-yr employee and family man. Gresham would like to help him save his job if possible. He wondered if harsher discipline might do the trick.

Perhaps if he knew that another step out of line would earn him a 10% cut in pay it would provide the needed jolt to make him see the light. Gresham hightailed it to his boss’ office to discuss the idea.

Question: What do you think of Gresham’s brainstorm?

Birnbaum’s response: “I appreciate the objective,” Plant Engineer Sol Birnbaum told the foreman. “But I don’t think a salary reduction is the way to achieve it. The Department of Labor’s salary-base test specifies that overtime-exempt employees are not ‘subject to pay reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of work performed.’ But there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

“Salary review time is in 2 wk. I suggest you tell Hascomb that, for the reasons stated, he will be bypassed. At the same time, place him on 3-mo probation. By the end of that time, he either shapes up or ships out. I would also encourage him to take advantage of the company’s program to deal with his alcohol problem.”

Racial gags are not funny

Management decided on a costume party and dance for the company’s 50th anniversary. Masks ranged from Napoleon and Josephine to President Clinton and Newt Gingrich. But Electrician Grade II Bud McIntyre’s mask was the shocker. He showed up wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.

To understate the case, the three black employees present were shamed and humiliated. All three walked out, which gave McIntyre and a couple of his cronies a big laugh. The following day, the black employees filed a grievance, charging racial harassment.

Maintenance Foreman Cal Bauman lost no time presenting McIntyre a termination notice. The electrician no less quickly protested it. He appeared at the supervisor’s desk with Plant Steward Joe Vance in tow.

“It was a dumb thing to do,” Vance argued. “But Bud meant it as a joke. No harm was done.”

“Except perhaps to McIntyre’s stomach,” Bauman replied. “He almost split a gut laughing when those guys walked out.”

“Yeah, well, I admit that was in bad taste. But it doesn’t call for dismissal.”

Question: Do you agree with the steward? Is termination too stiff a penalty for McIntyre’s action?

Brogan’s verdict: “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer Ralph Brogran ruled. “Whether or not McIntyre perceives his behavior as a joke doesn’t stop it from being racial harassment. In fact, it is by no means uncommon for harassment to parade under the guise of a joke. McIntyre should be made to understand that some ‘jokes’ just aren’t funny.”

Preserve management’s right to manage

Sensible labor agreements specify management’s right to hire, fire, suspend, promote, or otherwise assign employees with the principles of good management and business control in mind. So it makes little sense to mindlessly allow this right to fly out the window. Yet that’s exactly what one company did, thanks to a busy supervisor’s thoughtlessness.

In 1998, with the company in a financial bind, Maintenance Supervisor Cliff Creamer decided his department could get by with 2 instrument repairmen instead of 3. When he posted a notice to that effect on the bulletin board, all 3 repairmen appeared at his desk.

George Givens, acting as spokesman for the group, argued persuasively in their behalf. They had been operating effectively for years as a 3-man team. The loss of one man would leave them seriously shorthanded. The least senior man slated for discharge had important skills that would be missed. The reasons went on and on.

“Okay, okay,” the busy supervisor conceded and agreed to tear up the notice.

Flash ahead to the present. An even worse financial bind recently triggered the same decision again: Two instrument repairmen in place of three. This time, despite Givens’ eloquence, Creamer refused to give in.

Givens refused to sit still for it. “This violates a binding past practice,” he protested.

“No way!” Creamer replied. He cited management’s right to manage, which includes hiring, firing, and the rest.

Question: Can Givens win if he persists?

Garelick’s verdict: “The labor agreement specifies that it is subject to past practices,” Plant Engineer Clarence Garelick told Creamer. “While this does not apply to management’s right to manage, it could be interpreted to apply to the concession made in 1998 when, as a representative of management, you yielded to employee pressures to rescind the notice you posted. This decision is not worth making an issue over. I would suggest retaining all 3 men.”

Excessive absence: Dig hard for the cause

Oh no, not again!” was Maintenance Supervisor Ted Kaufman’s response to a call from Personnel that Mechanic Grade II Bob Minkoff had phoned in sick for the second time this week.

Personnel’s reply was more sympathetic. “That poor guy has more things wrong with him than you can shake a stethoscope at.”

“That’s rough, but I can’t run a department with people who may or may not be in. I’m going to have to lay down the law: Either his attendance shapes up, or he’s out.”

Kaufman didn’t have to lay down the law. Minkoff appeared next day looking sick. He had missed work the day before, he explained, because his doctor had ordered another test, an MRI this time.

“That’s the fifth test this month,” Kaufman groused.

“You’re behind in your count,” Minkoff said. “How about eight? I’ve got a dozen things wrong with me, but the medical geniuses can’t pin down the cause.”

Minkoff then produced a note from his doctor ordering him not to work for a month, and asked for a paid leave of absence.

“Sorry, I can’t do that,” Kaufman replied. “While I sympathize with your health problems, you can understand that I can’t run a department with people whose attendance is unpredictable. If your absence continues, I’ll have no choice but to let you go.”

When, during the following week, Minkoff called in sick again, he was fired.

The worker threatened to grieve.

Question: Does Minkoff have a legitimate grievance?

Murdock’s verdict: “Because the guy doesn’t have a clearly diagnosed health problem,” Plant Engineer Ben Murdock said, “it doesn’t mean he isn’t seriously ill and in need of help. This fact makes him a candidate for Family and Medical Leave under FMLA. Let’s check that out and help him if we can before writing him off.”

Employee incapacitated by chemo: What to do?

Instrument Repairman Bud Marvin was no less qualified today than on that traumatic day a year ago when his doctor sadly informed him he had cancer. Except for the 2-3 days a month that his chemotherapy treatments made him too sick to work.

Maintenance Supervisor Arthur Rodinsky was not without compassion. But having to work around a key employee’s absence 2-3 days a month was becoming more and more of a problem, and one he had to address. His options weren’t encouraging. He could demote Marvin to a less important desk job which, knowing Bud, he would hate and which would undermine his morale. He could try transferring him to another department, which was a copout and would merely wish the headache on somebody else. Or, since he had no obligation to retain an employee unable to carry his fair share of the workload, he could just fire the guy.

The supervisor’s frown deepened as he mulled over each option. Whatever one he considered left a sour taste in his mouth. Unable to resolve the dilemma, Rodinsky wisely sought his boss’ advice.

Question: How would you decide if this problem was dumped in your lap?

Berman’s decision: After listening to the supervisor’s rundown of his options, Plant Engineer Chet Berman replied, “Each one is worse than the other.”

“I know,” Rodinsky said unhappily. “But what should I do?”

“Not a thing,” Berman said. “You’ll have to learn to live with the problem. Aside from the human and common decency aspects of this case, although Bud Marvin can’t validly be designated a disabled employee, there’s a good chance he’ll be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In past court decisions, ADA is known to have covered workers whose treatments left them disabled although their illness did not.”

Must probationary workers be laid off before others?

When the layoff list was posted, Electrician Grade II George Heller stormed up to Maintenance Supervisor Vince Martin’s desk.

“What goes on here?” he demanded, waving a copy of the list in his boss’ face.

“I’m sorry, George. The Benson contract fell through. The layoff was unavoidable.”

“I’m a senior employee. Edgar Griff’s on probation. How come my name’s on the list and not his? The contract says probationaries get the ax before employees with seniority.”

“Most of the time, that’s how it works,” Martin agreed. “But there are exceptions.”

“Based on what?”

“Qualifications. Despite the fact that Griff’s on probation, he has critical skills you lack. For example, complications on that lab rewiring job you’re not qualified to handle.”

“A couple of days training would qualify me.”

“It isn’t that simple.”

Heller scowled, “You’ll be hearing from me about this.”

Question: In your opinion, does Heller have a case?

Barker’s verdict: “Heller goes, Griff stays,” Plant Engineer Mel Barker ruled. “Previous arbitration decisions give employers the right to retain qualified probationaries in favor of senior employees who lack needed skills and experience. Management isn’t obligated to train people to qualify.”

How soon must you reinstate a worker on leave?

When Maintenance Foreman Harold Hill received a letter from Carl Danzig stating he was ready to return to work after a 5-mo leave of absence, he told Charley Raskin, his assistant, “This could be a problem. What are we gonna do with the guy?”

Raskin frowned. “Beats me. His old job’s filled. We’re gonna have to assign him elsewhere, or create a new job.”

Hill agreed. He telephoned Danzig to acknowledge his letter and informed him it would take a while to decide where to assign him.

“How long is a while?”

“I don’t know. Soon as I can get around to it, I’ll let you know.”

Hill didn’t get around to the decision for 3 wk. When Danzig was finally notified to show up for his new job as a materials handler, he claimed entitlement to at least 2-wk pay for lost time prior to his starting date.

“How do you figure that?” Hill wanted to know.

“According to the labor agreement,” Danzig argued, “I’m supposed to be returned to work within a reasonable time of my reinstatement request.”

“I did the best I could,” Hill said.

“It’s not good enough. I’m putting in for that money.”

Question: Do you think Danzig has a valid claim?

Lopez’s decision: “Pay him for the 2 wk,” Plant Engineer Don Lopez instructed Hill. “The decision to assign him as a materials handler wasn’t all that complicated. It should have been made early on.”

Worker feud? Replace enmity with kindness

Teamwork is at the core of productivity and job satisfaction. But one would never know it from the way electricians John Barber and Alex Mokofsky were at each other’s throats half the time. They didn’t actually come to blows in their hostility, but when the coworkers weren’t arguing or berating one another, they took to the silent treatment, which was almost as bad.

Their antagonism, no secret in the department, was especially troublesome to Maintenance Foreman Roy Braden, who was distressed not only by the disharmony, but by its negative effect on the work. He tried to keep Barber and Mokofsky apart as much as possible, but often had no choice but to assign them projects as a team.

Braden had more than once attempted to persuade them to shake hands and end their childish feud. But one or the other invariably responded with a diatribe about how impossible it was to work with his adversary.

Unable to deal with the problem Braden decided to seek his boss’ advice.

“Send them to me one at a time,” Plant Engineer Sam Raymond replied. “I’ll try to talk some sense into them.”

Question: In Raymond’s shoes, how would you handle this situation?

Raymond’s strategy: The first man the plant engineer saw was John Barber. “You’re both acting like kids and you know it,” he said. The truth of this was so obvious, Barber lowered his eyes in admission. “John, do you honestly believe Alex is a criminal type and as reprehensible as you make him out to be?”

Barber murmured. “No, I suppose not.”

“Then why don’t you put an end to this nonsense?”

Barber frowned. “I guess I don’t know how.”

“If I tell you a quick surefire way to do it, will you give it a try?”


“Okay, this is it. Instead of glaring, and ranting, and insulting each other, do something friendly and nice for a change. A favor of some kind that will help Alex in his work. Give him a tool he can use. Or information he needs without his having to ask. You may be surprised at the effect.”

Raymond used exactly the same approach with Mokofsky. Within 2 wk, the two men were going to lunch together.

Names used in Human Side of Engineering are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons is coincidental.