Perfect attendance is such a virtue at Lawson Products, employees who go a year without missing work or arriving late are rewarded with...

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CHICAGO — Perfect attendance is such a virtue at Lawson Products, 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.

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.

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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 standardize discipline and wrest greater control over workers’ schedules.

In Chicago, J.P. Morgan Chase’s Bank One tracks and disciplines unscheduled absences at its operations centers. People’s Energy does the same in its call 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.

“It’s no-fault, but it’s also no excuse,” said Timothy Huizenga of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metro Chicago. “People who are sick are treated the same as those who don’t feel like coming to work.”

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

“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 runs into millions of dollars for large companies, averaging 4 percent of payroll, not including indirect costs resulting from work not getting done, according to Mercer.

Illness accounts for 38 percent of unplanned absences, while family issues, personal needs and stress account for 52 percent, according to an annual study by publisher CCH.

Only 10 percent of unexpected absences stem from an “entitlement mentality,” according to the study. The report was based on a random poll of 305 human-resource executives.

“For most employees, absenteeism is something they really can’t control,” said Susan Lambert, associate professor at University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

“Kids get sick — the average is 10 days a year — and policies are never that generous,” she said. “A lot of these policies are trying to legislate stability, but they’re not taking into consideration the realities of people’s lives.

“What’s most effective in trying to reduce absenteeism and turnover is flexibility and well-designed jobs,” she added.

Employers said their policies are as flexible as business allows.

People’s Energy permits “shift swapping” in its customer call centers, sparing employees points if they line up their own replacements.

Employees also escape points if their center’s computerized monitoring system shows that staffing was adequate, even without them, to handle incoming calls.

People’s spokeswoman Elizabeth Castro said the utility implemented no-fault attendance three years ago because customer service is a critical function.

“It makes people think a little bit more about what their absence means,” Castro said. “If customers can’t get through, that’s a huge problem.”

At insurer Allstate, which tracks unscheduled absences for all employees, hourly workers can take up to eight hours a year of “emergency time” that doesn’t count as unscheduled absence. They also can draw in hourly increments for emergencies from their paid-time-off banks — pools of days available for vacation, sickness and emergencies.

“Our philosophy is to provide flexibility while being mindful of the need to serve customers,” spokesman Michael Trevino said.

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,” he said. “If you have absenteeism, your back’s against the wall.”

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

“There’s a lot of pluses to having the program. There may be negatives, but the I think the pluses outweigh the minuses.”