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Some companies ruthless about tardiness, absence

Unforgiving economy gives business one up

Knight Ridder Newspapers

CHICAGO -- Perfect attendance is such a virtue at Lawson Products Inc. that employees who go a year without missing work or arriving late are rewarded with extra paid days off.

But for some, there's a downside.

At the distributor's warehouse and customer service center in Addison, Ill., there are no excuses for missing work unless time off is scheduled in advance. Any unplanned absence, whether for illness, a flat tire or family emergency, is a black mark.

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Punching in one minute late earns half a point. Missing one to two hours merits one point. A full day adds two points.

Six points results in a reprimand; 10 points, suspension without pay. Employees can be fired if they exceed 12 points within a year.

Such "no-fault" attendance programs, which run counter to the trend toward more family-friendly workplaces, are migrating from factories and warehouses to white-collar environments as companies try to wrest greater control over workers' schedules.

In Chicago, J.P. Morgan Chase &; Co.'s Bank One tracks and disciplines unscheduled absences at its operations centers.

Such policies are gaining sway in an unforgiving economy where staffing is lean, and turnover and absenteeism are chronic problems in some lower-paying clerical, technical and service jobs, experts said.

No-fault policies eliminate judgments about whether an absence could have been avoided. Instead, they draw a strict line between planned and unplanned time off. Typically, no more than six unscheduled absences are tolerated within a year, although multiday illnesses count as one "occurrence."

Employees with paid days off for illness or emergencies still get paid, but these unplanned absences count against their attendance records.

But no-fault policies have risks for employers because inconsistent enforcement opens them to charges of bias, while strict enforcement can be problematic.

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"They're completely blind in their application," said William Groth, an Indianapolis employment lawyer. "If you don't allow for any exceptions and you mechanically apply them, you can sometimes catch up some pretty good employees in that sort of net."

The cost of unscheduled absences averages 4 percent of payroll for companies, not including indirect costs resulting from work not getting done.

Employers said their policies are as flexible as business allows.

Lawson, an international distributor of industrial supplies based in Des Plaines, Ill., has used no-fault attendance at its Addison facility for 15 years.

"Lawson as a company has always gone out of its way to be a very family-friendly place to work," said human resources Vice President James Smith. "In areas where there's a lot of day-in and day-out production, (managers) have a tendency to be a little bit tougher because you only have so many people that have to get out orders on a daily basis."

Enforcement is flexible, he said. "Many of our supervisors, where children are involved, make accommodations that go outside the attendance policy.

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