Letters about innocent absenteeism are fair warning, says arbitrator (Legal view)

Communication informs, not punishes, employees
By Lorna Harris
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/01/2006

Nikola Kireta, an employee at Maple Leaf Consumer Foods had a habit of extending his weekends into the workweek. So did nine of his co-workers at the Burlington, Ont. meat-packing plant. Their attendance record in the first quarter of 2006 was so bad that, by the middle of April, they received letters from management warning them that if their record did not improve, they could find themselves with no job to go to any day of the week. Some of the employees failed to improve on attendance in the second quarter and by mid-June another warning letter was sent.

The union grieved that sending these letters was a disciplinary move and contrary to the collective agreement, especially an article related to time limits on discipline. It stated that no disciplinary action “shall be considered when the circumstances giving rise to it were more than three full working days after the facts occurred or were known” and noted a sunset clause of one year after which warnings were to be removed from the employee’s file.

Fortunately, the company had drawn up an attendance policy modelled on advice given in two other arbitration awards. The policy noted the company took attendance issues seriously and would monitor the situation of employees frequently absent from work. This included encouraging the employee to consider strategies to improve attendance, as well as ensuring the company would verify the reasons for frequent absences, make an effort to accommodate employees suffering from disabilities and establish whether the employee could attend regularly in the future. The message would be given to the employee, in the company of the union steward if he wished, in a series of escalating meetings: first with the supervisor, then the department manager, then the HR manager and finally the plant manager.