Managing 24/7

Covering last minute absences – where to start?


Ask any manager and they will tell you that finding last minute coverage for an employee that called out can be a nightmare. After all, no one likes being the bad guy that asks someone to extend their shift or come in on a day off.

Coming up with a good policy to cover last-minute absences means finding a way to meet the needs of the organization without alienating the needs of the workers – no one enjoys being “forced in” to fill a shift when they have family obligations and other outside activities.

Ideally, the first step is to put together a list of workers who have volunteered to be available for extra shifts in order to fill a vacancy. A system like this gives employees who want to work more hours first crack at the overtime shifts, and presents additional hours as a benefit, not an inconvenience. Depending on the number of workers you employ, you might even be able to fill the majority your open shifts this way.

Ordering the “call list” is really up to you. Some companies organize it by seniority, offering the first shot at overtime shifts as a benefit of long tenure with the company. Other organizations rotate people through the list, moving an employee to the bottom after he’s worked one overtime shift.

Sometimes, though, no one on the call list is available at the last minute. That’s why it’s a good idea to have several “next steps” in place and follow them consistently. Those next steps vary depending on your company’s policies and needs. Avoiding mandatory overtime will benefit morale, but in some cases may be unavoidable.

One Minnesota manufacturing plant covers most of its last-minute absences by asking volunteers from both the current 8-hour shift and the next shift to stay an extra 4 hours and come in 4 hours early, respectively. In a pinch, a team leader stays to cover the next shift. The company is now considering creating a “flexible staffing pool,” composed of former employees, technical school students and others, for call-ins.

At an electric utility in Canada, workers on the voluntary on-call list can check off which particular shifts they would like to be available for (and can change their preferences at any time). If two or more workers indicate their availability for a shift, the one with the least amount of accumulated overtime is called first. Mandatory hold-overs are used only in emergencies.

For certain types of work, temporary staffing from the outside may be an option. Some temp agencies specialize in supplying industrial or warehouse workers. Such agencies can often deliver workers even on short notice, such as after a shift has begun.

3 More Best Practice Tips for Covering Last Minute Absences

  1. Keep in mind the dangers of fatigue when creating your policies on calling in relief workers. For example, it’s far better to call in someone on the third day of his four-day break than a worker who just finished a 12-hour night shift ten hours ago.
  2. Watch out for overtime hogs - those employees that “pig out” on overtime, even sacrificing alertness, safety, and job performance in order to collect the maximum amount of overtime possible, and end up dependent on the extra pay.
  3. Keep employees informed of policies - Whatever your procedure for covering last-minute absences, make sure workers are kept fully informed of it. Keeping them in the loop and letting them know in advance what they can expect, can help generate a company-wide attitude of working together to get work done, even when it’s not always convenient.

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