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Attendance policy: Control absenteeism without breaking the law

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,FMLA Guidelines,Hiring,Human Resources,Office Management,Payroll Management

THE LAW. Regular attendance is obviously a key job function for most of your employees. But despite your freedom to set and enforce attendance rules, you also face key legal hurdles to your attendance policy, including:

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) says organizations with 50 or more employees must allow eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualifying events. Because the law bans you from discriminating against employees who use FMLA leave, you can't consider FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment decisions, such as hiring, firing or promotions. Nor can you discipline workers for missing work because of FMLA leave.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require you to suspend or modify your attendance policy to accommodate a disabled worker. And you can't apply your attendance rules as a way to discipline a disabled employee.

Bottom line: If an employee is absent from work because of an FMLA or ADA-approved reason, he can't be disciplined for the absence under your regular attendance policy.

Also, state laws may affect your ability to discipline or terminate employees for excessive absences.

WHAT'S NEW. Absenteeism continues to be a constant challenge to employers, but it eased a bit last year. Employees seem to be more fearful of taking time off during a weak economy and tight job market.

The numbers: In 2003, the unscheduled-absenteeism rate fell to an all-time low of 1.9 percent, according to CCH Inc. (The rate is calculated by dividing paid unscheduled absence hours by paid productive hours.) And the annual employer cost of absent employees dropped to $645 per employee last year, down from an all-time high of $789 in 2002.

Most employees use unscheduled time off for reasons other than actual illness. While personal illness is still the single most common reason for last-minute no-shows (36 percent), nearly two-thirds of unscheduled absences (64 percent) are due to other reasons: family issues: 22 percent; personal needs: 18 percent; entitlement mentality (employees earn the leave, so they use it): 13 percent; and stress: 11 percent.

HOW TO COMPLY. The best defense against absenteeism is a reasonable and specific attendance policy that's tied to your organization's (and the specific job's) needs.

The policy should cover all issues of attendance, including lateness, sickness, personal business, family and medical leave and disability concerns. A key piece: Set objective criteria for when absenteeism would trigger disciplinary action.

The two most common types of attendance policies are no-fault policies and paid-time off policies. Here's the rundown on each:

No-fault attendance policies regulate absenteeism by recording each absence as an "occurrence." Progres-sive disciplinary action is taken when the total amount of occurrences exceeds a certain number. For example, six occurrences may result in a written warning, eight occurrences may trigger a one-day suspension and 12 would end in termination.

Paid time off (PTO) policies group all vacation days, holidays, sick days and personal days into one combined bank of days an employee is entitled to be absent from work each year. When employees' absences exceed this amount, they may be subject to discipline. If the maximum number of absences isn't used, the employee may convert the remaining days into cash or carry them over to the next year's balance.

To decide which system fits best, examine your typical job functions. Example: It may be critical for workers to be on time if they deal with the public, such as receptionists, sales clerks, bank tellers or nurses. In contrast, a prompt start may not be as critical for certain professional "self-regulated" jobs.

Next, make sure you and your supervisors keep accurate records. Communicate the attendance policy's terms to all employees, and include them in employee handbooks.

Finally, always apply your attendance policies consistently among employees. Employers who don't open themselves up to discrimination claims.

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