Leadership: Labour-management co-operation helps Surrey Fire Service reduce absenteeism
By Karin Mark with Fire Chief Len Garis
Initiated in August of 2003, the Attendance Management Program outlines a procedure for managing unsatisfactory staff attendance, using a series of progressive steps that includes letters, counselling and positive reinforcement.
By Karin Mark with Fire Chief Len Garis
A program aimed to reduce employee absenteeism in the City of Surrey (B.C.) Fire Service has produced positive results and earned the city recognition from its peers.
Initiated in August of 2003, the Attendance Management Program outlines a procedure for managing unsatisfactory staff attendance, using a series of progressive steps that includes letters, counselling and positive reinforcement. The first of its kind in B.C., the program was a response to a gradual increase in absenteeism at the Surrey Fire Service – one of B.C.’s largest fire departments, with 17 fire halls and more than 300 fire fighters.
The department saw a marked improvement in attendance immediately after adopting the program, which subsequently earned Surrey a 2004 Community Excellence Award for Best Practices from the Union of B.C. Municipalities. Absenteeism from August to December 2003 dropped significantly from the first part of the year, which had seen an increase from the previous year’s figures. By year-end, the overall absenteeism for 2003 had dropped to below that of 2002.
The City of Surrey has a long-time practice of monitoring staff attendance for all its departments – including the fire service – because of the cost and operational implications. Research for the Attendance Management Program began in 2000, when absenteeism had grown to the point that the fire department was sometimes unable to meet minimum staffing levels for calls.
Assistant Chief Ron Price, who started the project, discovered a program in the United Kingdom that ultimately served as the model for Surrey’s effort. Nothing like it existed in Canada at the time. Assistant Chief John Watt took over the project in the latter part of 2002 as part of his administrative duties.
The program was a collaborative effort between the Surrey fire department management, the City of Surrey’s human resources department and the Surrey Fire Fighters Association local 1271. The union’s participation was in part based on the sick leave pay structure that sees the city paying for the first day and the union paying for the next six days, using a fund supplied by member payroll deductions. Like the employer, the union was facing higher costs, and it also didn’t favour the previous adversarial relationship regarding absenteeism.
Thus, the union and management had a shared interest in reducing absenteeism. In addition, the relationship Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis has developed with the fire fighters association over the years has resulted in generally higher levels of co-operation and consensus building between the department’s union and management.
Key to the collaborative process was an underlying assumption that employees’ absences are legitimate and that the program is in no way an attempt to identify or punish sick leave abuse. The union was initially reluctant to legitimize the project, but bought in after recognizing its objective approach.
Goals of program
The program is intended to promote and achieve high attendance levels from all employees, reduce costs and disruption to the operations, define management’s roles and responsibilities with respect to this issue and lay out a consistent approach to handling absenteeism that ensures all employees are treated fairly and consistently.
It also aims to make employees aware that they are important to the department, that they are expected to be at work on time and in a fit condition, and that sick leave is an unfunded insurance plan that costs both the city and members.
At the root of the Attendance Management Program is the contractual nature of the employment relationship – in return for their paycheques, staff members are expected to provide reasonable attendance and performance of duties. So, while managers will do whatever they can to help staff members improve their attendance, an ongoing unacceptable level of absenteeism will not be tolerated and will result in dismissal.
As Brown and Beatty’s Canadian Labour Arbitration says, “The first basic principle is that innocent absenteeism cannot be grounds for discipline, in the sense of punishment for blameworthy conduct. However, arbitrators have agreed that, in certain very serious situations, extremely excessive absenteeism may warrant termination of the employment relationship, thus discharge in a non-punitive sense.”
That said, the Surrey Fire Service has been investing in the health of its employees for a number of years. Each hall is equipped with exercise equipment and time is allotted on each shift for fitness training. Hepatitis B and influenza vaccinations are provided free to employees. As well, an in-house wellness program has brought in a nutritionist to talk about healthy food choices and preparation, and has provided literature aimed to promote good mental health.
How it works
Based on labour-management discussions and historic absenteeism data, the department determined that employees would enter the Attendance Management Program after either five occurrences of absenteeism or three occurrences that amount to more than seven shifts in a calendar year. There is some flexibility, however. Employees who exceed the benchmark but were away for obvious reasons could be removed from the list. As well, employees might be added to the list before reaching the benchmark if their absences are suspicious or form a pattern.
The list is compiled annually and monitored quarterly, with regular consultation with the union when names are added or deleted. Employees stay on the list for the same length of time that their absences exceeded the program criteria. At the minimum, employees must have at least 12 months of consistent attendance to be removed from the list.
The program consists of five progressive steps that – in the case of an employee with continuing absenteeism – include four letters, three counselling sessions and, finally, dismissal. Those with improved attendance for the required period of time receive a letter of congratulations from the assistant chief – a copy of which goes in their personnel file – and are removed from the list.
Employees in the Attendance Management Program are expected to do whatever is necessary to improve their attendance record, including perhaps changing their lifestyle or seeking help of some kind. Management’s role, in the meantime, is to keep accurate records, review attendance profiles, conduct positive counselling interviews, reinforce employee responsibilities and offer assistance.
The first stage of the program is a letter that informs the employees they have entered the program, explains the program and its necessity, and encourages them to seek help if need be to improve their attendance. The letter is copied to human resources, the occupational health advisor and the union.
If the absences continue, an interview is set up with an assistant chief and a second letter is sent. A union representative also attends the interview, at which the assistant chief attempts to identify the cause of the problem, offers assistance, reviews the absenteeism policy, informs the employee his/her record of attendance is unacceptable and asks for a commitment to improve it. An accompanying letter further confirms the discussion and is filed to human resources, the occupational health advisor, the fire chief, the union and the shift battalion chief.
Employees who reach this second stage are required to provide a doctor’s certificate for all absences within seven days of returning to work or face disciplinary action. This remains a requirement until the employee leaves the program.
Stage three, for employees with continued absenteeism, includes a similar counselling session and letter, although with a more serious tone to make the employee aware of the urgency of the situation. Again, a union representative attends the meeting and the letter is filed to the same parties as in stage two.
The fourth stage includes a third counselling session and fourth letter. The human resources manager joins the assistant chief and union representative at this meeting to impress upon the employee the seriousness of his/her position. Employees who reach this stage are given a final warning that if their attendance doesn’t improve, they will be dismissed. A letter reinforces the meeting and is filed to the various parties.
The fifth stage, termination, includes a meeting between the employee, human resources manager, assistant chief and union representative. The employee is then advised that his/her failure to show improvement after several warnings has led to the termination of his/her employment contract.
Procedures can be modified
It is important to note that the procedures laid out in the Attendance Management Program are only a guideline. The steps are intended to resolve chronic absenteeism and help employees, but they may be modified to fit particular situations. For example, there may be some cases in which employees are not dismissed after completing the first four stages, such as if an employee has a setback after making obvious attempts to improve his/her attendance. Alternatively, an employee may be terminated after fewer meetings and letters if the absenteeism is severe enough to warrant it.
Judging by the results so far, the program’s consistent, progressive approach is succeeding in helping employees better recognize the importance of their reliable attendance at work. The department expects the program to produce long-term operational benefits including manageable absenteeism levels, greater productivity and increased morale. From the union’s perspective, the resulting reduction in time loss has meant more money remains in the pocket of its members, and fire fighters with absenteeism issues now have some say or choice in alternative duties, if that is an option.
With its wide application potential for both the public and private sectors, the Attendance Management Program is yet another example of the innovation and progress that can be achieved through labour-management partnerships.
Karin Mark is an award-winning B.C. journalist who has covered communities, governments and business in the greater Vancouver area for more than 12 years. Len Garis is the Fire Chief for the City of Surrey. For more information, contact Garis, 604-543-6701 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.