Human Side of Engineering – 2002-06-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor June 15, 2002

Ultimate measure to determine seniority

Business had declined in recent months, and management mandated a layoff in Production, Maintenance, and other departments.

In compliance, Maintenance Supervisor Edgar Lehman posted a list of three employees scheduled for the ax. One of the men, Welder Grade II Charley Devons, protested.

“How come Joe Tierney is being kept on, and I’m let go?” he wanted to know.

“No particular reason that I can think of other than seniority,” Lehman replied.

“In that case an error has been made,” Devons said. “I checked it out with Tierney himself. My date of hire was October 6, 1996. Charley’s date of hire was November 3 of the same year.”

Lehman promised to look into the matter and get back to him. He did so within the hour.

“Your hiring date information is correct,” the supervisor told Devons. “But what you neglected to consider was that in March of ’97 when you were having back problems you were given a three-month leave of absence. Seniority entitlement didn’t accumulate during that time. Thus Joe Tierney’s seniority is better than yours.”

“That’s a rip-off,” Devons protested. “Date of hire should be the gauge of a person’s seniority. I shouldn’t be penalized for taking a leave.”

Lehman shrugged. “I don’t make the rules, pal, I only enforce them.”

Question: If Devons decides to make a case out of this, how do you rate his chances of winning?

Carlyle’s decision: Plant Engineer George Carlyle backed Lehman’s decision to lay off Devons and retain Tierney. “Clause 356 in the labor agreement clarifies the effect of a leave on seniority. It states specifically that when a leave of absence is granted, the employee’s seniority is retained but not accumulated. In short, seniority is only earned while an employee is productive.”

Accident reports must be mandatory

One morning Maintenance Department Utility Worker Steve Polsky, operating a three-wheel motorized vehicle, was moving a load of production materials from one part of the plant to another.

Suddenly, riding over a badly damaged patch of floor covering, the vehicle tottered, throwing Polsky out of the seat along with several of the boxes he had been carrying. The worker felt a pain in his shoulder, but figured he would probably be able to “work it out” in time. Gathering the fallen boxes, he restacked them on the vehicle and continued transporting the load.

Unfortunately, the pain in Polsky’s shoulder became more intense as the day progressed. By mid-afternoon he complained to Maintenance Supervisor Felix Reiner that “his shoulder was killing him,” and requested permission to clock out and go home.

“What’s wrong with your shoulder?” Reiner asked.

The worker hesitated. “I had a little accident this morning.”

“What kind of accident?”

Polsky reluctantly described what had happened, how the vehicle had been snagged on the bad flooring, and the rest of it.

“You didn’t report it?” Reiner asked. “Didn’t it occur to you that if you had an accident that others could have an accident if that flooring wasn’t repaired?”

Polsky shrugged. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

“Well, around here safety is a big deal every day of the week.”

Question: In Reiner’s place, what action if any would you take in response to Polsky’s failure to report the accident?

Childer’s response: When Reiner cued in his boss on the incident, Plant Engineer Robert Childer instructed him to issue the worker a three-day suspension. He added, “Call his attention to Clause 519 in the labor agreement that requires employees to report accidents when they occur or suffer the disciplinary consequences.”

Employee summoned to jury duty needed

You have to be kidding,” Maintenance Foreman Roy Davis told Instrument Repairman Joel Miller when informed that he had been summoned to jury duty for two weeks.

“We’re way behind schedule. We have a backlog two feet high. You’ve got to get a postponement.”

“No can do,” Miller replied, “I’ve had two postponements already.”

His normal starting time was 9 a.m.

“What time do you have to show up in court?” Davis asked.

“Ten a.m.”

“Tell you what,” Davis said. “In that case do me a favor. I’m really strapped. How about coming in at 7 a.m. for the next two weeks and putting in two-and-a-half hours each day. That would give you enough time to get to court in time and it would help a lot.”

It was a tough grind but Miller agreed to help out.

The mechanic served the two weeks putting in the requested time at the plant each day. Davis thanked him for his cooperation.

When payday rolled around Miller examined his check and made a beeline for his boss’s desk.

“What’s the problem?” Davis asked.

“The problem is that all I got is my regular pay.”

“That’s what the contract calls for. When on jury duty you’re entitled to the difference between your regular earnings and what you get paid by the state for your service.”

Miller disagreed. “That’s not fair. I would have received that amount if I didn’t put in that extra time. My normal starting time is 9 a.m. I’m entitled to overtime pay for coming in at 7 a.m.”

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I’ll check it out.”

Question: Is Miller entitled to overtime pay?

Goodman’s decision: “Give him the overtime,” Plant Engineer Gerald Goodman ruled. “The guy bent over backward in an effort to help. He deserves it.”

Can an arbitrator rule discipline is excessive?

The digital clock on the wall read 10:40 a.m. when Mechanic Grade I Lester Arnold was assigned by Maintenance Foreman Chuck Winter to check out a boiler malfunction reported by Production. Arnold didn’t expect the job to run into his noon lunch hour, but it did. He was about to wash up for lunch when the production supervisor asked him to do him a favor and defer his lunch hour until the boiler was repaired.

The mechanic agreed. When at 12:30 the job still wasn’t complete, Arnold decided to take a breather and went to the employee cafeteria to grab a cup of coffee. He intended to bring the coffee back to his work station and drink it there. Normally, this would have taken no more than 10 minutes. But Arnold got into a discussion with a crony at the coffee machine and was gone a half hour.

Prior to heading for the cafeteria the mechanic neglected to reset a dial that was designed to prevent the boiler from overheating. Seconds before his return Arnold heard a loud noise. “Oh my God!” he thought in a panic.

His panic was justified. The boiler had exploded because of his failure to reset the dial. Thankfully, no one was injured. But the explosion had caused damage in excess of $4500.

Maintenance Foreman Chuck Winter was quick to react. Arnold was fired.

The stunned mechanic rallied Ben Jenkins, a unit steward, to his cause. “Look,” Jenkins argued, “the guy made a mistake. It can happen to anyone. He deserves to be disciplined, but termination is too harsh a penalty.”

Winter disagreed. “The dismissal holds.”

Jenkins threatened a grievance. “We’ll see what an arbitrator has to say about that.”

Question: Do you think an arbitrator will overturn the dismissal?

Calvin’s verdict: “The decision stands,” Plant Engineer Fred Calvin ruled. Supporting his decision he cited Clause 258 in the collective bargaining agreement. The clause specified that in ruling on grievances an arbitrator’s authority shall be confined to a determination of whether the employee did or did not engage in the prohibited action. “The actual discipline imposed is beyond an arbitrator’s jurisdiction,” Calvin told Jenkins.

The steward walked away disgruntled. The worker was fired.

Is poor attendance sufficient cause to deny promotion?

Master Instrument Repairman was a critical job in the plant. When a vacancy in this classification was posted, three employees put in bids for the job.

An African-American employee, Associate Repairman Dan Bellinger, was the most senior of the three. He had the experience and training required. Nonetheless, Maintenance Supervisor Jerry Jackson selected Sam Williams, a worker with lower seniority, for the job.

When Bellinger protested and claimed discrimination, Jackson explained the reason for his choice.

“There is no discrimination involved,” Jackson replied. “I have been reviewing your personnel record. Your attendance has been substandard.”

“There are plenty of people in this plant with worse attendance than I have,” Bellinger said. “I’m qualified for the job. I’m entitled to it.”

“That’s for me to decide. Your record may not be the worst in the plant, but it’s still substandard. Regular attendance is a key factor on this job. It takes more than ability to qualify for master.”

“Seniority is a key factor, too, according to the contract. On that score I have got Williams beat by a couple of years.”

“Sam may be less senior than you, but at least I know he’ll show up on time every day. Sorry, Dan, your poor attendance makes you a loser on this one. Cut down on your absences, and you may have better luck next time around.”

Bellinger refused to settle for this and threatened to file a grievance.

Question: How do you rate Bellinger’s chances if he follows through on his threat?

Cochran’s verdict: Plant Engineer Jim Cochran reviewed the records Jackson set on his desk.

“An employee’s attendance record,” he told the supervisor, “is not normally a reliable gauge of his qualification to handle a job. It’s a problem instead for corrective discipline to remedy.

“Bellinger is entitled to a crack at the vacancy, with a note inserted in his folder that continued poor attendance might result in termination. If his absences continue to be excessive, follow-up action may be called for.”

What does pregnancy have in common with an appendectomy?

When Allison Reiner, a clerical employee in the Maintenance department, was given three months pregnancy leave to have her baby, she fully expected that her job would be waiting for her when she returned. However, during the three months she was gone the company experienced economic reverses. As a result, the number of clerical employees in Maintenance was reduced from three to two. Although Reiner had been replaced for one month by a temp upon her departure, after the month no further replacement was hired.

When her three months leave was almost over, she notified her boss, Maintenance Supervisor Ken McDermott, that she would be returning to work the following Monday.

McDermott congratulated her on the birth, and asked how the baby was doing.

“Fine,” Reiner replied, “he’s got linebacker potential, eight pounds, three ounces at birth and gaining steadily.”

Her boss chuckled appreciatively. “I’m glad you called, Al. But you’ll have to wait a while for recall. Sales declined precipitously the last three months. Every department’s been affected including Production and Maintenance. I had to cut down the clerical staff from three to two. You’re number one on the recall list. I’ll let you know as soon as business picks up.”

Reiner didn’t take the news passively. She needed the job. “You can check me out on this,” she told McDermott, “but it’s my understanding that the law requires a woman on pregnancy leave to be treated no differently from an employee on any other kind of medical leave. That means I get my job back when I return.”

“Under ordinary conditions I’d agree. But when economic necessity requires me to cut the work force…”

“That should make no difference,” Reiner cut in. “To make my case stronger, I’m first in line for the job. Jo Ann, who’s also classified as clerical, has lower seniority than I do. If anyone’s let go it should be her and not me.”

McDermott hesitated. “I’ll check it out,” he replied.

Question: Is Reiner within her rights demanding that she be recalled?

Tremont’s verdict: “Recall Reiner and let Jo Ann go,” Plant Engineer Jack Tremont instructed. “She’s absolutely right. The law states that an employee on pregnancy leave must be treated the same as any other employee on either sick or disability leave.”

Are stealing and petty theft synonymous?

Employee A’s paycheck is overstated $1.29; he fails to report it. Employee B forgets that he stuck a pair of pliers he had used on the job in his back pocket, takes it home, and doesn’t bother to return the tool. Employee C, paid on piece work, has his output overstated by the checker when he makes the rounds to tally production, and keeps quiet.

Are these employees out-and-out crooks or petty thieves? Honesty is indeed the best policy. No honorable person would disagree. But where do you draw the line? Or should a line be drawn at all? More to the point, when “theft” occurs at work, what standard should apply in disciplining the “perpetrator?”

In short, what constitutes serious theft as opposed to petty theft? Should a distinction be made and, if so, at what point? Or should Maintenance Foreman Ed Harmon’s conviction apply that no distinction at all should be made. As he states the case: “Theft is theft.”

Mechanic Grade II Tom Nissan, a long-time employee, was basically a hardworking and conscientious employee. By no stretch of the imagination did he consider himself dishonest. Yet Harmon didn’t think twice before presenting Nissan with a dismissal notice when a half dozen lined pads were revealed in his lunch box upon leaving the plant.

Nissan was stunned by the termination. “Maybe what I did was wrong,” he conceded. “But, heck, being fired for taking six lousy pads. It’s no big deal.”

Question: Does Nissan deserve to be fired?

Bell’s verdict: Plant Engineer James Bell frowned upon reading the charge when Harmon handed him the dismissal notice for approval. He instructed the foreman to bring him Nissan’s personnel folder, which indicated a clean record over a 10-year period with no serious infractions.

With Harmon on hand, he summoned the mechanic to his office. Nissan was red-faced with eyes lowered.

“Tom,” Bell said, “those pads you took are company property. What you did is wrong and an act of theft. Petty, or not, taking what is not yours is stealing and is not tolerated in this plant. However, in view of your good record and long service with this company, I’m going to forgive your indiscretion this one time only. Should a repetition occur you are out of here for good. I hope you appreciate that.”

“I do sir, thank you.”

Bell instructed Harmon to issue Nissan a 3-day supension.

Is a time-study report privileged information?

Complaints about the company’s incentive pay system had been registered almost from the day of its inception. In recent months, gripes had increased in both volume and petulance.

“The incentive system isn’t working,” Plant Manager Alan Young conceded, “and there’s no sign it’s going to get any better. I think you’ll agree it’s about time we discarded it.”

Present at the meeting were Plant Engineer Mel Roth, Production Manager Jim Solokoff, Young’s assistant Phil Conarroe, and a half dozen supervisors. They all nodded their heads.

“So where do we go from here?” Solokoff asked.

“Back to a regular hourly basis for all employees on incentive,” Roth said. “That means we’ll have to establish a set of new standards in order to calculate and announce pay changes in time for the new labor agreement.”

“That’s right,” Young replied. “I already contacted a reputable management consulting firm that specializes in this kind of thing. They have a team of time-study experts on hand ready to come in when they get a green light.”

The time-study engineers appeared bright and early Monday morning. By Friday, their report was on Young’s desk. It was reviewed by key management people, with most of the recommended changes approved by consensus. That afternoon an announcement of the date the new system would take effect appeared on the bulletin board. It stated that employees whose productivity fell short of the new standards would be penalized. Minutes later, David Dooley, a bargaining unit representative, appeared at the plant manager’s desk.

“We have no way of measuring and evaluating the fairness of the new standards unless we see the details of the time-study report and determine how the standards were arrived at. When do we get a copy of that report?”

“You don’t,” Young replied. “The report is privileged information.”

“No way!” Dooley exploded. “We’re not sitting still for this.”

Question: Is Dooley’s demand within his rights as a labor representative?

Expert’s response: Labor Relations Attorney Anita Crane was consulted. “Give Dooley a copy of the time-study report,” she advised. “The N.L.R.B. has ruled time and again that the bargaining unit is legally entitled to review time-study and other relevant data to assess work standards so as to determine whether or not they are fair and reasonable.”