In the Trenches: Overwork and lack of clear sick day plans brews trouble

In this installment of In the Trenches, Acme finds that its doctors can't patch up a bad staffing situation.

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It was 10 years ago that Maye Tennins applied for work at the Acme plant in the far south suburbs of Acmetown. Fortunately, the economy was good back then. After only one interview and a round of skill testing, she was hired as a maintenance technician, just one of about a dozen the nonunion plant hired that year. During the intervening years, Maye watched the Acme culture evolve in response to the economy. Now, with a focus on cost containment, the plant has been understaffed for several years and there’s no backup for anyone on the plant floor, including the hourly maintenance staff.

As a result, the environment was chaotic. Planning, scheduling and, consequently, efficiency left something to be desired. The technicians were constantly on the go, seeming never to have sufficient time to close out a job order completely before being called to respond to someone’s “more urgent” problem elsewhere in the plant. Technicians who were unable to deal with these stressful conditions no longer work there. The rest coped as best they could. In Maye’s case, this included seeing a therapist weekly and periodically relying on pharmaceuticals to help her keep things in perspective.

Acme’s main production line was in the middle of its most recent planned shutdown. The maintenance department, as usual, scrambled, sometimes quite ineptly, to complete repairs and upgrades during the 36-hour window the operations department allocated before production was scheduled to restart. The pressure was on, the work was hot and sweaty, and the clock kept ticking.

With her shift finally over at 4 p.m., Maye started for the locker room. The foreman, Wyatt Hertz, called her name and told her she had to work the next shift because one of the technicians had called in sick. Maye protested about being physically exhausted. She argued that she didn’t have the stamina to go for 16 straight hours at this pace. Besides, she was to be at the premiere of the high-school play in which her daughter had the lead role.

Wyatt insisted she remain on duty to ensure the maintenance work for which he’s responsible would be completed ahead of schedule. Maye asked how long ago the other technician called in sick. Wyatt replied that he knew four hours ago that Maye would need to work a double shift.

Maye called home to let her most disappointed daughter know the situation. Then she returned to work in a mood most foul. For the next hour, a grouchy Maye silently fumed about Wyatt springing his last-minute surprise that unilaterally altered the evening she had planned, assuming she could stay awake through the performance.

About an hour into the shift, Maye reached a tipping point. She picked up her tools, stowed them in her locker and hurriedly washed up. She drove home and called her therapist for an impromptu phone consultation. The therapist ultimately recommended that she take one of those green-and-yellow pills and get some sleep.

When Maye returned to the plant the next morning, Wyatt scolded and threatened her about her unauthorized departure the previous night. Maye replied that she had to leave because of a work-related injury. Wyatt immediately demanded that she go to the clinic Acme uses so that a doctor could evaluate her fitness for returning to work.

Just before lunch, the doctor reported that Maye was perfectly fit to work, but he prescribed several months of weekly psychological therapy as a condition of continued employment. Afterward, he would evaluate her again. Wyatt accepted the recommendations and ordered Maye to go to the psychology clinic that Acme uses. He added that she was to visit the clinic on her own time. Maye argued that she was already seeing her own therapist, but Wyatt insisted that she use the Acme practitioner.

During the next few months, Maye went to more than 15 one-hour weekly sessions with the Acme psychologist. Each visit required her to drive one hour each way. Although these sessions involved no out-of-pocket expense, she began to believe that this arrangement was intended to be punishment for refusing to work back-to-back shifts. It was a short hop to resenting an Acme that obligated her to waste three uncompensated hours out of her private life each week to visit a therapist with whom she felt no sense of rapport.

Maye finally got fed up with her situation. At the end of her shift the following day, she packed her personal belongings and tossed them into her car. She then walked back into the plant and told Wyatt that she was quitting, as of right now. With that, she walked out and never looked back. A few weeks later, she sued Acme, claiming that the company should have paid her time-and-a-half for the three hours involved with the 15 therapy sessions because they represented an addition to her normal 40-hour work week.

How could this situation have been avoided? Can a company dictate which practitioners an employee should be using? How much advance notice should be given if employees are needed to work beyond their normal quitting time? When is the off-work time required to fulfill a company mandate compensable? Was Maye truly obligated to work the extra shift? Can psychological stress be a work-related injury?

An academician says:

There are a couple of ways to view this problem. One is from the legal perspective. Could Acme have asked Maye to work overtime on short notice? Probably yes. Was Maye wrong in walking out? Probably yes. Did Acme have the right to determine what therapist Maye went to? Probably yes, as they were paying the freight. Should she have been compensated for her therapist visits? Probably not. And so on.

However, I don’t think any of the above will help Acme’s bottom line, nor Maye. Instead of looking at this as a legal question, we should view the problem as part of a high-performance work system. The question here is how to complete the repairs and upgrades in the shortest amount of time and quickly get the line running again (and making money for Acme). Wyatt should have had an overall plan in place that should have included a contingency plan for people calling in sick. He should have cleared the plan with the employees involved, including Maye, to make sure that there were no glitches.

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