Late for Work: When Does It Really Matter?

November 7th, 2007 by

For 17 years, Tommy Holly worked for Clairson Industries, a plastic injection molding company, as a mold polisher. At age 20, Tommy was in a motorcycle accident which left him a paraplegic. Despite the disability, Tommy established himself as an excellent employee. His job reviews were consistently positive. He was neat, meticulous and well organized. He had one problem: because he was wheelchair bound, he was often late for work. Sometimes the corridors inside the plant were blocked by pallets; sometimes the rain slowed his exit from his vehicle; and on rare occasions, bowel problems sent him back to his home for a change of clothes. Usually his lateness was no more than a minute or two and had no impact at all on his evaluations.
Long into his tenure, the company hired a new personnel director with the intriguing name of Cloteen Kilkelly (scroll down this site for her photo). Cloteen eventually rose to company president (it’s not just cream that rises, as you will soon see). Cloteen implemented a new “no fault” tardiness procedure. Whenever employees clocked in late for the shift – with late defined as one second or more! – they were charged with “half an occurrence.” After 9 occurrences, the employee was terminated. By “no fault” Clo (let’s get informal) meant that no excuses were allowed. Late is late. Needless to add, arriving promptly for the shift was defined as an “essential” component of every job.
Even though Tommy had a problem clocking in on time, he made up his admittedly frequent tardiness without fail on the same day it took place. Tommy would skip his break, work through lunch and work past the end of the shift, as needed. In addition, his job was not on the assembly line, where his tardiness might impact the ability of others to perform their work. Promptness to the nearest second might possibly have been an “essential function” for assembly line workers, but it was marginal for Tommy.
You can surely see where this is going. Tommy hit the 18 incident mark, tipping the scale at 9 occurrences. With no excuses tolerated, he was terminated. For the record, the cumulative late time was one hour and 13 minutes – all made up, as we noted, on the same day.
A Plaque for Clo?
When Tommy filed suit under the ADA, the case was dismissed under summary judgment by the Florida’s central district court, which found that he was unable to perform an essential function of the job (getting to work at the precise start of the shift). The court accepted Clairson’s contention that such promptness was an “essential function” of the job. Shame on the court for jumping to conclusions.
The appeals court over-ruled the summary judgment and remanded the case for further consideration. Tommy is going to win this case. It’s a no brainer. He is certainly disabled. He was able to perform the job with a no-cost accommodation that required very little from the employer. The accommodation would have no impact on the company’s ability to perform the essential work in a timely manner.
The most puzzling part of this sad tale is the obtuseness of the employer. They had a highly skilled and motivated worker. Tommy had proven over the course of 17 years that he could perform the job extremely well. Good workers like Tommy are hard to find. Instead of recognizing his unique circumstances and accommodating his obvious disability, the company stood behind a rigid, ill-conceived personnel policy – one that is punitive for every worker, not just someone with a disability. Clairson’s tardiness policy – and their unwillingness to accommodate Tommy Holly – merit a “worst practice” plaque on the Insider’s Management Wall of Shame.