During his recent tour of duty with the military, Les Nookham developed an acute sensitivity to sound levels that probably would not bother other people. He was a machinist and spent much of his assignment repairing vehicles using hammer, power saw and air tools. All in all, he worked in what he considered to be a noisy environment. It was purely a subjective judgment, but from his perspective, the sound levels could become head-splittingly loud. That’s why he was always asking the folks back home to send him those little foam ear plugs. He started carrying a Ziploc bag filled with them and always kept a pair jammed into his ears while on duty. Spending countless hours in a noisy environment is stressful, and he found the overseas experience to be physically exhausting and mind-numbing, even when he wasn’t performing manual labor.
Upon his return, he was grateful to find his old job in maintenance at the Acme plant waiting for him. He found it comforting to be among friends and familiar surroundings again. He especially appreciated the opportunity to apply himself to work that really made a difference. He had been settled in for a few months when the headaches began.
Over time, the occasional brain pain events progressed to severely debilitating migraine headaches a few times each month. The typical triggers for migraines include stress, bright lights or certain odors. For example, the sound and smell that accompany trying to enjoy an after-work brew with his friends at a noisy bar almost always made him nauseous, set his head pounding and made it necessary for him to leave almost as soon as he arrived. The resulting headaches were worse than a bad hangover, and it didn’t take a gin mill to set one off. The migraines happened when they happened, unpredictably. Even the beta-blockers that Ray Diem, his doctor, prescribed to combat the problem were an unreliable defense. On some mornings, it was all he could do to call his supervisor, Adam Baum, to announce he was taking a sick day.
Upon his return to work after his second such sick day, Adam pulled Les aside to explain a few things. “We’re a lean operation here,” Adam said quietly. “When you don’t show up, it burdens the department and the rest of the plant. That’s why we have a ‘no-fault’ attendance policy.”
“What’s that? What does it mean?” asked Les.
“Nobody can be absent or tardy repeatedly for any reason,” replied Adam, “regardless of the ‘fault.’ This includes medical excuses. We’re talking serious business here. Be careful. Company policy says that employees are subject to immediate dismissal for violations.”
“But, it’s not my fault I get migraine headaches, Adam,” Les argued. “I guarantee, they’re not something I welcome or endure voluntarily.”
“There’s also the matter of the point system,” added Adam. “HR assigns you an ‘occurrence’ if you’re absent, unless your situation fits some specified policy exception, which are darned few in number, that’s for sure. I already checked, and migraines aren’t on the list.”
“So,” asked Les, “how many of these stupid points can I accumulate and not get in trouble?”
“I think the current limit is 6.5 per calendar year,” answered Adam. “But, you can get one ‘occurrence’ subtracted from your total if you work two months without getting another one. Do you think you can do that?"
“I sure aim to try, Adam,” answered Les as he walked off to his work area.
But Les’ best laid plans didn’t work out quite the way everyone involved had hoped they would The series of prescriptions and medications Dr. Diem ordered were of limited help. Several times, Les tried to tough it out and come in to work when a headache had laid him low. On those days, everyone recognized that he was useless and ineffective, merely sitting at his desk in pain, trying to look productive while grouching at anyone who interacted with him. It was obvious to everyone that this valiant display of corporate esprit de corps and attendant public suffering weren’t going to work in the long run.
All in all, Les accumula- third of that was attributed to what he called stress attacks, which kept him out of work for a day at a time. There was no discernable pattern to the sick days, which occurred randomly.
But Les wasn’t the only one in his family with medical problems. A month later, he requested two days off to accompany his wife to the hospital for a series of surgical procedures she scheduled.
“You understand,” replied Adam, “that, if you’re going to be absent yet again, it will almost certainly set off all sorts of alarms in the HR department. There’s not much I can do to prevent it.”
“You’ve got to try, Adam,” replied Les. “What would you do if it was your wife who was going under the knife?”
“Can’t you have her take a cab?” Adam asked. “That’s what I’d do if I were in your shoes. Then, you could get to the hospital right after work. Besides, what are you going to do for medical coverage if you’re not working here any longer?”
“I’ve got to do the right thing,” Les said. “I’ll be out again for two days next week. Right now, the lady needs me more than I need to work under such insensitive regulations.”
“I can’t be complicit in this thing, Les,” said Adam rather firmly. “I’m telling you that you can’t have the time off.”
“Too bad, boss,” replied Les as he turned and walked away.
Les took his wife to the hospital. The following Friday, his pay envelope also contained a termination notice.
How could this situation have been avoided? What is a justifiable rationale for an employer to adopt a no-fault attendance policy? Can such policies be considered equitable, or are they too one-sided? Why? What strategy could one use to circumvent a no-fault attendance policy? Does Acme have any obligation to ensure that Les receives proper treatment for his migraines? How about an obligation to accommodate the headaches as a handicap?