The emergency call from a Richmond hospital came to Neal Bailey while he was working at the Allied-Bendix Aerospace factory in McLean. His mother's kidney and heart problems had taken a bad turn, her doctor said, and Bailey was told he'd better come quickly.
But when Bailey asked permission to go, his supervisor told him that if he left work he would be fired. He had already accumulated 7 1/2 points of "absence occurrences" under Allied-Bendix's new absenteeism policy, and if he was charged with another half point for leaving early, his eighth point would mean termination.
Most of Bailey's fellow workers, angered by the threatened discharge, went on a spontaneous work stoppage, putting down their soldering tools and walking off the job in protest. Within 20 minutes, the plant manager told Bailey he could leave without penalty.
"It was so wrong what they were doing to me . . . . It's run like a prison in here," said Bailey, 23, who had been suspended without pay for five days because of an earlier absence to visit his ailing mother, who is also an Allied-Bendix worker. At least 220 of the McLean factory's 360 production workers submitted petitions last week asking the defense contractor to relax its "inhumane" attendance policy.
The incident is a dramatic example of the most troublesome and costly discipline problem in the nation's work places: absenteeism and the resulting conflicts that often arise when employers attempt to remedy high absence rates by instituting get-tough policies.
That conflict was graphically illustrated last week when 3,000 factory workers at General Electric Co. went on strike in Pittsfield, Mass., to protest a new attendance policy that also included termination after eight unexcused absences.
Companies consistently rank absenteeism as the biggest discipline problem and, in an era of intense corporate competition, are experimenting more than ever with approaches to reduce it, according to the private Bureau of National Affairs. The bureau has cited estimates that large companies lose $1 million a year for each 1 percent of the work force that is absent.
Many firms, including Allied-Bendix, are trying combinations of disciplinary threats and positive inducements such as cash bonuses to improve attendance. However, most firms are leaning toward stricter discipline, according to Dow Scott, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University professor of management who surveyed absenteeism at 5,000 U.S. companies and catalogued 125 types of employe excuses and 35 types of management absentee policies.
"It is very hard to run a manufacturing operation with double-digit absentee rates. And ours was over 10 percent," said Sidaire Priftis, director of operations for the Allied-Bendix plant, where workers earn $6.98 to $9 an hour making top-secret communication devices for the Pentagon.
Absenteeism at such rates -- far above the national average, which is estimated at between 2 and 6 percent -- is highly inefficient because production is slowed and workers often must be assigned unfamiliar tasks to replace absentees, Priftis said.
The Allied-Bendix solution, after 10 years of chronic absenteeism that reached as high as 16 percent, was a so-called "no-fault" attendance policy started last year. No-fault is based on a rigid point system that has become increasingly popular among corporations, according to management experts.
After nearly 15 months, Allied-Bendix says that no-fault has yielded dramatic improvements. Absenteeism has been cut to 4 percent while the overall productivity rate has increased 15 percent and the company has exceeded its efficiency targets by 9 percent, Priftis said.
But employe turnover has increased, and angry workers have petitioned their employer to show "human compassion" by allowing more leeway for family emergencies and personal problems. Workers assert that morale has plummeted, quality of work has suffered and more employes are prepared to quit -- assertions strongly disputed by the company. Child care problems are a major source of conflict at Allied-Bendix, as elsewhere because of the influx of parents into the work force.
The new attendance policy is termed no-fault because unexcused absences are charged against employes regardless of whose fault the absence was. Excused absences that are not charged as points include hospital confinement, industrial injury, scheduled medical treatments, jury and military duty, death of an immediate family member, vacation, holidays and five paid sick-leave days, which employes can receive after one year on the job.
But virtually all other absences are 1-point penalties, and any lateness of more than three minutes or any early departure isa half-point, regardless of cause. After 4 points, workers begin receiving warnings. At 7 points, they are suspended without pay for five days. Workers can gain back a point if they have a calendar month of perfect attendance.
In interviews, workers complained about being charged for absences caused by car accidents, injury or sudden illnesses of their children, unavoidable child care problems, homes being burglarized, massive traffic jams and many other causes. Employes complain that the policy often is unequally enforced, with favored workers escaping penalties that others suffer.
"Our house burned down in Sterling last December. We lost our clothes. We lost everything . . . . And we got points off," said Reba King, a six-year Allied-Bendix workers whose husband David also works there.
"My apartment was robbed on May 7. The D.C. police called and said I had to come home. That's a half-point," said Sherry Wilkes.
"My son Louis broke his wrist at the baby sitter's," said Janet Rivera. "I brought in the doctor's excuse . . . . Didn't matter." She was charged for absence for leaving work to take her 8-year-old to an emergency room.
Scott said that no-fault systems "usually are instituted when companies are at wit's end. Usually they have driven themselves into a corner because nothing else worked." The appeal of no-fault, he said, is that the system frees supervisors from having to wrestle with difficult and sometimes painful questions of which absences to excuse.
"The object of this plan is not to be harsh and get rid of good employes," said Priftis. "The idea is to get us out of the excuse business. You are only kidding yourselves when you get into the excusable versus the unexcusable."
Allied-Bendix, a division of Allied Corp., a conglomerate of 100,000 employes and $10 billion annual sales, started its policy in April 1985 after a management consultant surveyed workers in McLean and described what he called an "absentee culture" in which the lack of a clear, firm policy encouraged workers to abuse the system, said Donald C. Lucas, the firm's employe relations director. About 40 percent of the work force favored tougher enforcement in the consultant's survey, he said.
Lucas acknowledged that "a faction" of the work force is demoralized by no-fault, but he said that "you have another faction that has lifted their morale and now feels better" because chronic abusers have been dismissed and because the company counsels troubled employes and has rewarded 12 employes with $50 gift certificates for 12 months' perfect attendance.
Absenteeism often becomes worse when companies speed up the pace of work and pressure workers to produce, said Greg Tarpinian, director of the Labor Research Association, a New York group funded by unions. Many companies have cut back on paid holidays and leave time as a cost-saving measure, only to find absenteeism rise, he said.
Scott said his research suggests that "positive reward" systems are slightly more effective than "discipline policies" in encouraging attendance. Yet most supervisors favor discipline over reward systems, he said, "because they believe that people should want to come to work because they get paid to come to work." But he said that attitude may arise because managers "may enjoy work more and get paid more than average workers."
Allied-Bendix is willing to risk morale problems in the interest of attacking the problem, said Priftis, 58, a 31-year veteran of the company. He said, "I don't want to have a happy team and be broke." He said he believed that many problems were attributable to the fact that his work force is young -- averaging under 30 -- and lacks the "work ethic" that Priftis' generation possesses.
In nearly 15 months of no-fault, at least 24 workers at Allied have been fired and dozens have been suspended. In nonunion work places, workers have no contractual right to appeal such actions, but unionized workers can file grievances under labor contracts that require firms to show "just cause" for terminations. At Allied-Bendix, four workers were reinstated by the company after grievances were filed by their union, Local 2323 of the Communications Workers of America.
The union plans to appeal some dismissals to a labor arbitrator, who could order further reinstatements and possibly overturn the policy, according to Ronald Blackwell, the local union vice president. "We think it is overkill," he said. "We have people who are working sick, working hurt, working with serious family problems and health problems" because of fear of firing.
But Richard I. Bloch, a veteran Washington labor arbitrator who has ruled on hundreds of absenteeism cases, said that arbitrators tend to uphold even the strictest policies as long as the employer is reasonable.
"You are dealing with human beings, and it is usually a mix of good reasons and bad reasons for absences," Bloch said. "But at some point, can't the employer say, 'I'm sorry, I realize it's not your fault, but it's not my fault either, and I just can't afford to keep paying somebody overtime' " to replace missing workers?