March 21, 2012  
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Employee work restrictions challenge human resources
by Dick Kendall

(Excerpted from the March/April 2012 issue of Paper360° magazine.)

Human Resource (HR) departments within the pulp, paper, converting and allied industries are not exempt from the expectation to "do more with less." The functions of an HR department are varied and include recruitment and selection, compensation and benefits, safety, health and wellness, labor and employment relations, training and development, employment law compliance, and policy development.

One issue that is currently troubling to HR officials involves dealing with employees who present work restrictions to their employer regarding performance of their jobs. John Wirch, Vice President of Human Resources - Little Rapids Corporation in Green Bay, Wisc., explains:

Selecting, training and retaining the right mix of employees has always required intentionality and follow-through from the Human Resources practitioner. Properly deploying human resources to accomplish the company's goals and objectives is critical. However, since some employees within the workforce present restrictions to their employer indicating that they can't perform certain aspects of their jobs, the employer is challenged to interpret the restriction and to decide if it can be managed effectively.

Jim McDonnell, Vice President-Human Resources for Wausau Paper Corporation, Towel & Tissue Segment in Harrodsburg, KY says:

Employees occasionally present statements from doctors, health care professionals or others restricting how many pounds can be lifted, how long the employee can stand before a machine center, etc. For various reasons an employee may resist and disagree with the diagnosis that they are physically incapable of performing various aspects of their job. Some employees may be under medical restrictions that are so limiting it makes satisfactory job performance impossible. It is critical that an employee not be assigned to a job (task) that could expose him/her to potential harm.

Some employees, even if they know they can no longer perform their jobs satisfactorily, may believe they are entitled to employment without regard to their physical limitations and may believe it is the employer's obligation to "restructure" their jobs in exchange for having given their employer several years of service.

How does an employer know that an employee is unable to satisfactorily perform assigned job duties owing to physical issues?

Visual observations may help. Co-employees may comment about the employee's inability or inequitable work distribution issues caused by the employee's limitations. Situations may arise where mental infirmities may hint that a job is not being performed. Such situations may require outside experts to help clarify things.

Once it is known that an employee isn't adequately performing the physical aspects of the job, the employer faces challenges.

The employee is likely protected by federal and State laws prohibiting certain discrimination. Additionally, the employee may be protected if he/she has a "disability" [physical or mental] as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act or by other statute(s).

If a labor union represents employees, the employee can expect to receive support from the union and may file a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement.

The employer must be cognizant of discrimination issues. The employer must:

  • Consider whether it has carefully documented the employee's failures and whether such a record might appear to be an attempt to remove "dead wood" from the workforce.
  • Survey the employee's situation in terms of the other employees around him/her and assess whether it will appear that the employer was motivated by the failing employee's age, race, gender or other non-germane issues.
  • Review its history of dealing with similar performance issues. (Have other employees been discharged for similar performance failures? What has been done to address other employees who aren't able to physically perform their job assignment?)
  • Review the employee's situation through an ADA prism to determine whether the employee is "disabled" for purposes of state and/or federal law.
  • Engage in an "interactive exchange" with the employee to determine whether the employee desires accommodation.
  • Determine whether the employee's suggested accommodation would work and/or whether it would create an "undue hardship" on the employer.

The intent of this article is not to denigrate the employee who is no longer able to perform their job. As Ron Zimmerman, Human Resources Manager, Packaging Corporation of America, Tomahawk, WI, points out:

Make no mistake about it…with all the experience, history of the organization, product knowledge, maturity and conscientiousness that employees possess, the skilled employee is a great asset to the organization. It takes a long time to train and develop the employee resource so when we can retrain and retain employees, we will.

If it is determined, however, that the worker cannot perform the physical and/or mental functions of the job satisfactorily, the HR professional must act promptly and decisively, taking the necessary steps to protect the employee and the company and to assure deployment of the right human resource for today's economy and tomorrow's needs.

Dick Kendall, SPHR, has worked in HR in the manufacturing sector for nearly forty years and is Executive Director of the Pulp and Paper Manufacturers Association in Wisconsin which has been providing HR services to union and non-union facilities in the pulp, paper, converting and allied industries since 1936. Contact him at: [email protected].

NOTE: Read the full article in the March/April issue of Paper360° and find out more about what a company can do to address this situation.


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