Human Side of Engineering – 2001-06-01

When can you hire an outside contractor? The labor agreement specified that existing employees be given preference to perform work assignments if they were qualified or, within a "reasonable period of time, could be taught to qualify for the work involved." The roofing repair job in question was complex.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor June 1, 2001

When can you hire an outside contractor?

The labor agreement specified that existing employees be given preference to perform work assignments if they were qualified or, within a “reasonable period of time, could be taught to qualify for the work involved.”

The roofing repair job in question was complex. In Maintenance Foreman Ed Peter’s opinion, it was beyond the scope of the maintenance crew. Peter’s recommendation was to hire an outside contractor. This idea was met with vehement opposition by bargaining unit employees, whose cause was taken up by Plant Steward Hank Griffith. The steward insisted that “no more than a couple of weeks” would be needed for whatever training was involved.

Peter disagreed. “But even if you’re right,” he said, “a couple of weeks is too long. The repair job is urgent and must be started immediately. Delay would result in heavy loss for the company.”

When Griffith threatened to grieve, Peter decided to consult Plant Engineer Chuck Logan.

Question: In Logan’s place, would you back down and give the inside crew a crack at the job?

Logan’s decision:”No way!” Logan ruled. “Too much is at stake. We can’t afford to take a chance on an unqualified crew. My guess is that Griffith is blowing hot air in his threat to grieve. For one thing, we can produce evidence that proves the urgency of getting the job done as quickly as possible. For another, there can be no question that we are acting in good faith in our determination that the existing crew is unqualified. It would cost considerably more to farm out the work than it would to have it done inhouse if our people were qualified.”

Can an employee sue for “constructive discharge” without being fired?

Grade II Welder Irving Katz committed the unpardonable sin so far as several of his coworkers were concerned. He was born Jewish. A clique in the maintenance department took pleasure in goading and baiting him relentlessly. Katz’s quiet sensitivity added fuel to their incentive in tormenting him.

If anything, Maintenance Foreman Gerald Oslin’s repeated brush-offs in response to the young welder’s complaints made his situation all the more intolerable.

Typically, Oslin would reply, “It don’t mean nothing; the guys are just kidding around, having fun.” Or, “Come on, can’t you take a joke?”

Katz’s chief tormentor was a muscled and overbearing bully named Joe Polsky.

On one occasion, irritated by what he viewed as the welder’s whining, Oslin told him, “Tell you what I would do if it bothered me that much. I’d take him outside and beat the stuffings out of him.”

This was certainly a totally inconceivable role for the persecuted young victim to take. The abuse had been going on for 2 yr or more, almost from the day he was hired. When Katz decided in desperation to quit, his father angrily challenged him, “That’s it? You’re gonna let them run you out of your job?”

“They’re driving me crazy,” Katz replied in tears. Indeed, his nerves were frayed and his blood pressure had risen precipitously. Nonetheless, at his father’s goading, he consulted a lawyer, who advised him to document the harassment and file a suit of constructive discharge.

Question: Without quitting or being fired, can Katz sue on the grounds of constructive discharge?

Bellinsky’s response:”He certainly can!” Plant Engineer Philip Bellinsky ruled when the case came to his attention. Bellinsky summoned Katz to his office, listened to his story, reviewed the documentation, and persuaded him to hold off his pending investigation. When this step was completed, Oslin and Polsky were summarily dismissed.

Must you pay higher rate for a temporary job switch?

Special kudos are due the supervisor whose people are trained and proficient in handling a variety of departmental tasks. In this regard, Maintenance Foreman Cliff Mifflin filled the bill. But even fleecy white clouds can have gray linings.

When Mechanic Frank DiSalvo was assigned to fill in for Instrument Repairman Joe Levy, who was on a 2-wk vacation, he did a yeoman’s job in his absence. However, when payday rolled around following his stint, DiSalvo appeared at Mifflin’s desk within minutes.

“There’s a discrepancy in my pay.”

“How’s that?”

“Instrument Repairman calls for a higher rate than Mechanic. I was paid at my regular rate.”

“That’s not a discrepancy, pal,” Mifflin replied. “Nothing in the labor agreement specifies higher pay for a temporary job switch.”

“That’s a ripoff! I do a higher-rated job, it’s only fair I get the higher rate for the job.”

“Sorry,” Mifflin said. “It was a good try, but I have to go by the contract.”

DiSalvo refused to give up. “At least check it out for me,” he asked.

Mifflin agreed to do so.

Question: If this were your case to decide, would you award DiSalvo the pay differential?

Markham’s verdict:”As you told DiSalvo,” Plant Engineer Arthur Markham told Mifflin, “it was a good try. But since the labor agreement doesn’t specify a higher rate for temporary fill-in work, and since we’re not in the habit of paying it, we can’t afford to set a precedent. Tell DiSalvo we have no choice but to be bound by the terms of the contract.”

Can employees be fired for off-the-job fight?

Most often, the answer is no. Off-duty fights are not usually grounds for dismissal. But exceptions do occur.

The dispute between two electricians — Bud Sylvan and Fred Fisher — originated on the job, and was settled in the parking lot during lunch hour. As a result, Sylvan wound up with a broken nose and Fisher suffered severe lacerations around his eyes and neck. The battle was dirty and violent, with knives employed. It lasted 40 min, and occurred in the presence of several maintenance department employees, with cronies of each participant cheering their man.

Neither Sylvan nor Fisher was in a condition to return to work. When the two workers arrived to clock in the following day, they found their time cards missing from the rack. They learned why soon enough. Both men were handed dismissal notices. Not surprisingly, both protested and threatened to sue on the grounds that the altercation had occurred outside the plant.

Question: Do you think the dismissals were justified?

Levinson’s response:”Most often,” Plant Engineer Jack Levinson ruled, “dismissal would be deemed too harsh for a fight outside the plant. In this case, however, I consider it justified. For one thing, the altercation was particularly violent with weapons employed, and part icipants unable to resume work. For another, it was held near the plant with other workers present. On top of that, the fight was between employees who are, out of necessity, required to work together at times and who apparently are still bitter enemies . Finally, with relationships of other employees also involved, the situation is too disruptive to be permitted to continue.”

Seniority: Does he have it or not?

Temporary maintenance department employee Bill Hollander was dismayed to hear that his summer employment was being terminated after less than 2 mo.

“When I was hired, I was led to believe it would run the entire summer.”

“Sorry about that,” Maintenance Supervisor Ed Moriarty sympathized. “We’ve run into a slump period; my orders are to cut back.”

The discharged worker had no argument about that. But when he remarked, “Well, at least I earned my seniority,” Moriarty replied, “What seniority?”

“This is my second summer on this job. I worked 2 mo last year and 2 mo this year. More than enough to exceed the 90-day probationary period.”

“That’s imaginative thinking,” Moriarty conceded. “but it doesn’t apply in this case.”

Hollander disagreed, and asked the supervisor to check it out.

Question: Do you think the discharged employee is correct in assuming he achieved seniority and the rights that go with it?

Belk’s verdict:Plant Engineer Mark Belk told Moriarty, “You were right in your comment about imaginative thinking. But nothing on his application form or the labor agreement suggests that the combined work time of a summer temp can be lumped together to achieve seniority.”

Can overtime be cancelled at will?

It was 3:00 p.m. Maintenance Foreman Al Shultz and his assistant, Pete Genaro, checked out the high priority lab wiring job that had been going on for two days.

“Looks good,” Shultz said. “We’re not gonna need that overtime after all.”

Genaro agreed. “I’ll tell the guys that it’s cancelled.”

The news was greeted with disgruntlement by electricians Arthur Morse and Burt Lasky, each scheduled for 3-hr overtime.

“I had to cancel plans for this,” Morse beefed.

“Me too,” Lasky said.

“Sorry about that,” Genaro replied. “There’s no point in scheduling overtime if it’s not needed. You finish the job in an hour first thing in the morning.”

“We counted on that overtime and changed out plans accordingly, Morse insisted. “We’re entitled to some compensation.”

When Genaro disagreed, the men threatened to grieve.

Question: Do you think the men should be compensated?

Keller’s verdict: “Absolutely not!” Plant Engineer Ralph Keller ruled. “The reporting pay provision in the labor agreement makes no mention of compensation for overtime cancellation. It was never challenged in the past, and precedence will have to prevail.”