Open Door – The Shift Worker’s Dilemma

The “Open Door” stories are all composites. Real situations I have faced in one form or another, but written with respect to those who have shared parts of their lives with me at work. And if you’ve worked in HR very long, you have dozens like these.

“You need to help me get my schedule changed.” Chuck was standing in the doorway, holding a copy of what looked like our weekly schedule.

“Well Chuck, give me a minute to finish what I’m doing here and we can discuss your issue.”

I knew what his issue was. We had announced that some of the operation was going to 5 days, which means weekends off. Some people would see that as good news. But I knew that was not the case with Chuck.

I motioned to him to have a seat while I finished the memo I was working on, and then I moved over to the little meeting table I had in my office.

“I’m not sure I can help you, Chuck. The union rules are pretty specific here. Your seniority doesn’t quite give you the opportunity to move somewhere that is a seven day operation. As best as I can tell, this will likely be the situation for about 2 months, then we will probably be running at full capacity again.”

“But you can put me on a special assignment or something, can’t you? Something where I can at least work some of my Saturdays? I don’t think I can make it two months without my full paycheck.”

The banks in town loved our employees. They gave loans for the trucks and boats based on the shift work schedule earnings. Putting aside the inconvenience of shifting schedules – a week of days, a week of nights, and then a week of evenings, with two days rest in between each – Chuck was scheduled to work only 5% more than a 40 hour schedule, yet there was an earnings difference in excess of 15%. The contract included shift differential and premium pay for Sunday, and they worked three out of four Sundays. Some of these guys took every additional shift they could get, and they made a lot more than the base forty hour check. The banks let them commit on that.

I had no need for additional help, and no special projects I could put Chuck on. Even if I did, it was likely someone with more seniority would have that opportunity ahead of him anyway.

“I can’t help you Chuck, not that way.”  He knew that, of course, and left my office dejected.

As it worked out, we were back to full schedules sooner than expected, and we were able to get most of the laid-off folks back in the mill.

I also learned to add some training to our orientation. A sort of “Finance For Shift Workers” where we did two things: We explained the value of the 401(k) and what free money (aka company match) looks like, and the importance of budgeting based on your base wage. We also designed our next work system with a “no overtime” policy. Allowing people to work voluntary overtime and having a process for that is costly. It is much more effective to have teams the right size for the work they do, and a process where a team can flex in the absence of  a co-worker. Overtime is a false economy. It hides a staffing problem, and it creates an unrealistic expectation of earnings in your workforce.

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