Does an Employee's Absenteeism Policy need a suspension step & time to improve?
At a recent conference, a panel of long-time labor arbitrators held a spirited discussion about this aspect of a company's absenteeism policy:
5 points: 1st written warning
6 points: 2nd written warning
7 points: Final written warning
8 points: Discharge
(Points roll off whenever they become more than 12 months old.)
There was nothing unusual about the grievant who was being discharged. He had been maximizing his use of FMLA leave and other leave. Even with points rolling off after 12 months, he was at 7.5 points when he neglected to check whether he had any vacation. The company uses a computerized system and the employee has the sole responsibility to check the system. His supervisor approved the vacation time based on operational and staffing needs. But it was the grievant's responsibility to check the system to determine if he had the vacation time available. He didn't, and this latest use of a vacation day put him at 8 points (he only had a half day in his vacation bank). So, the company processed the discharge.
The panel voted 3-2 to discharge him. We pick up on the panel's interesting exchange about the policy itself.
The union should have grieved this policy when it was unilaterally adopted. Two things are wrong with it. There needs to be time in between each of the penalties, so an employee has the opportunity to improve. Secondly, there needs to be a step where there is a suspension. This policy has 3 levels of warning and then you're discharged. This is not a well-conceived policy.
I agree that the union should have filed a grievance on the reasonableness of the policy when it was introduced or when the grievant got his first or second written warning. But they didn't and now they are trying to attack the reasonableness of the policy when the facts weigh heavily in management's favor.
Many employers no longer include a mandatory suspension in their absenteeism policies. These employers say that a suspension step just penalizes themselves. It just encourages more absenteeism and leaves the employer without a skilled worker at a particularly busy time, when they may need this worker on the job. The company would rather just say to the employee: "You're on a FINAL written warning. We don't have to suspend you to make this same point."
The idea behind these policies is to save employees and make them better employees. It's not to get rid of them. This program looks like it is designed to get rid of employees. They have invested 9 years in this guy. They need to make a better effort.
I would uphold the discharge, but it is not a particularly sound way to run a business when an employee reaches 7.5 points and a supervisor approves the vacation time. Yes, the employee is supposed to keep track of his vacation bank, but the supervisor's approval here became an invitation to discharge. The problem with all of these absenteeism policies is that they don't take into account when employees have good reasons to be absent. Maybe the union can save his job. These cases are very fact-specific.
Even a 1 or 2-day suspension should be in the policy. Something to sober the guy up. . .to let the guy know that he's teetering on the edge. As opposed to discharging a guy who has 9 years on the job, you're going to try to save them. Secondly, this is not an easy policy to understand. When you have points rolling off, FMLA leave, and then he gets back two points, etc.. Then he takes a full 8 hours of vacation time, but he only had 4 hours in his bank. Well, he missed it. It was a human error. Why do you want to fire him for that? I agree that there's nothing simpler than showing up for work. But I would give him one more chance.