By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/16/2005 7:27:51 PM ET 2005-09-16T23:27:51

“Those heartless [censored]”:

A Missouri woman is fired after she takes time off from her assembly-line job at an electronics company to care for her 18-month-old granddaughter, whose parents are trapped in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

A Tennessee woman is fired from her job at a discount store after she travels to Mississippi to rescue her brother and sister after Hurricane Katrina struck.

A New Orleans police officer is sidelined pending a formal dismissal hearing for leaving after patrolling for six days at the Louisiana Superdome to find his 103-year-old grandmother and his 76-year-old mother, who were stranded in a hospital by Hurricane Katrina.

The initial reaction, inevitably, is outrage. Can’t those bosses find some compassion somewhere?

More to the story?
“It’s easy to jump to conclusions,” said Aliza F. Herzberg, a partner in the New York law firm Morea, Schwartz, which represents companies in employment disputes. “... But we really are not looking at the full facts. It’s possible that the employees had other issues in their performance or attendance.”

Take, for example, the Missouri woman who was fired, Barbara Roberts, 54.

On Aug. 27, the Friday before Katrina struck, she drove 200 miles from her home in Mount Vernon to Columbia to watch over her granddaughter, Trisana, while her daughter and son-in-law were in New Orleans on a weekend business trip. When the couple were stranded in Louisiana by the storm, Roberts stayed in Columbia with Trisana while anxiously awaiting word of their fate. They made it back on Sept. 1. Roberts was fired Sept. 6, even though she had called her bosses at Positronic Industries to tell them of her situation ahead of time.

Herzberg allowed in an interview that “management doesn’t always make the right decisions.” But she said that often in cases like these, there’s more going on that we don’t know about — and that the company can’t talk about publicly, for privacy and legal reasons, which only makes them look even more hardhearted.

A matter of fairness
Roberts acknowledged that she had already exhausted not only all of her vacation time but also all of her unpaid annual leave and knew she could be fired.

Positronic President John Gentry initially told the Kansas City Star that “on the surface it looks like a cruel thing” but that there were issues of uniformity and fairness to other employees. Because of privacy concerns, Positronic declined to comment further after the Star published its report.

Then The Associated Press distributed the story nationwide, and the damage was done. Late Thursday, Positronic rehired Roberts.

The incident drove home that the company’s policies didn’t account for major disasters, and  “we just didn’t connect the dots,” Gentry told MSNBC.com on Friday. Positronic is a small company in the Midwest, and “we have tornadoes; we don’t have disasters.”

Gentry said he had already been meeting with his department heads to reassess the problem this week, but when the story broke nationally, he was bombarded with critical e-mail messages and customers threatened to cancel their business. MSNBC-TV’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” declared Gentry “the worst person in the world.”

Facing a PR nightmare
The lesson is that employers can be “right as rain legally and in a business sense,” said David Brooks, vice president of Beckerman Public Relations in Bedminster, N.J., who represents corporations and law firms in employment disputes, “but if you tried to invoke every one of your rights as a corporate employer, you could end up with a PR nightmare on your hands.”

Gentry said that’s exactly what happened: “People read the headline and they’ve already made up their mind. I was convicted by my peers. It didn’t matter what was in the rest of the article.”

Family Dollar Stores came to that conclusion in the case of the Tennessee woman, Kolonie Sims, 20, whom it also offered to rehire Thursday after The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville reported her firing from the company’s store in Spring Hill. She told the newspaper that she was considering turning down the offer.

With her supervisors’ permission, she left work early on Sept. 1, a Thursday, to drive to Long Beach, Miss., after her father left her a telephone message pleading for help. She and her fiancé found her younger brother and sister over the weekend and drove them to safety. When Sims called in to report back to work on Sept. 6, the Tuesday after Labor Day, she was told that she had been fired.

Sims told The Tennessean that company officials said they objected to her having taken off work early Thursday afternoon but not having left for Mississippi until late Friday. She said she needed time to prepare for the trip.

Looking at the big picture
Brooks said it was a big mistake to be so picky because “emotions are running high” after the Katrina disaster.

“The public hears devastation, family involvement — these are big, broad-brush notions,” he said. At such a time, “you want the big-picture stuff to be on your side, not against you.”

Supervisors should have been creative, he said. “Maybe give them a leave of absence, hire a temp to take their place, gather the co-workers and say, ‘Look, Jack or Jill ... have a family situation; can you guys all pitch in a little bit, work a little overtime and cover for her?’”

If handled sensitively, the workers’ absences could have been turned into a PR win: “We, XYZ Company, or we, ABC Store, recognize how horrible Katrina was and how the victims are suffering. We’re doing our part.’”

Of course, it’s always possible that the bosses really were cold, unfeeling and clueless.

“People are fired unfairly every minute of every day,” said Daniel Klein, a partner in the Atlanta law firm Buckley & Klein who represents workers in employment disputes.

Klein said by e-mail that, sometimes, “employers feel bound not to make exceptions to their official policies so that they aren’t accused of discrimination.” If you cut Employee A some slack to deal with an emergency, then the last five people you let go could complain that they were treated unfairly.

“On the other hand, sometimes ‘no exceptions’ just means that no one wants to be bothered with thinking things through,” he said.

Find a good lawyer
Like Herzberg and Brooks, Klein wasn’t familiar with the cases of Roberts or Sims. But in general, he said, workers who believe they’ve been fired unfairly should get a referral to a good employment lawyer.

“The employer’s lawyer should be able to tell you who, among the lawyers representing employees, they most fear going up against in court,” he said. “That’s the one you want to call.”  

The case of the New Orleans police officer, Tony Jerome Mitchell, 35, is somewhat different. Because police forces operate under a military-style chain of command, “police officers’ rights often differ from those of other employees,” Klein said.

Hundreds of New Orleans officers abandoned their duties after the storm, leading to intense criticism of the force, but Mitchell’s story, first reported Thursday in The Washington Post, highlighted that some, if not most, of those officers had pressing family emergencies of their own. The department has since said it would review such cases individually.

But Klein said his advice was the same: “At the end of the day, the officer should do the same thing as any other employee: see an attorney specializing in employment law, and the sooner the better.”

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