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This Owner Wants to Reopen But His Optician’s Loving Unemployment Pay

How would you handle this laid-off loafer?

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LIKE MOST PRACTICES across the country, Littleton Eye Care was profoundly affected by the COVID-19 crisis. By the second week of the statewide stay-at-home order all six employees had been laid off. Owner Dr. Yellen had been unsuccessful in applying for grants and loans, eventually using personal funds to supplement the practice’s bank balance.

Now, a week before Dr. Yellen planned to reopen, he was meeting with office manager Carmen. They sat at opposite ends of the reception room, each festooned in PPE gear.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you have any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NATALIE TAYLOR is owner of Artisan Eyewear in Meredith, NH. She offers regional private practice consulting and ABO/COPE approved presentations. Email her at [email protected]

“I’ve called each staff member to explain what the protocol will be to maintain social distancing,” said Dr. Yellen. “We have enough masks and gloves for three weeks, but you’ll need to order more.”

Carmen scribbled a note on his clipboard. “Sure… we do have an issue, however. Peter called me after he got your voicemail and said he won’t return to work next week.”

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“Is he sick?”

“No,” Carmen said, rolling her eyes. “He’s on unemployment, making a ton of money. I mean, he didn’t say that was the reason. He thinks it’s too soon to reopen and he doesn’t want to get his family sick. But before all this he wanted a big raise — now he’s got it!”

“It would be too hard to open without Peter,” Dr. Yellen said, wearily leaning his head back. “Lena can’t handle the optical department on her own. No way.”

“Actually, this is kind of crazy,” Carmen said, pulling her cell phone out. “I need to find the e-mail, but our website got a random resume from an optician. She has like, 20 years of experience!”

“Are you suggesting firing Pete?”

“He isn’t unemployed anymore,” Carmen exclaimed with frustration. “If he wants to refuse work, we need to report that to the state. I agree about Lena, she needs a mentor here and there’s no way the office can open without an optician; patients would go crazy.”

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“I know you aren’t Pete’s biggest fan, but he’s an excellent optician,” Dr. Yellen replied.

“Barely anyone in our county has gotten sick,” Carmen said. “If everyone wears a mask there’s almost no chance of getting the virus. It’s totally off the rails. At least this applicant actually wants to work!”

Dr. Yellen was quiet for a moment, deep in thought. “I think I’m going to see if I can increase Pete’s pay temporarily, call it hazard pay, to try to find a compromise with this unemployment check. I really can’t open without a strong optician.”

Carmen’s eyebrows shot up. “I certainly hope that means all six of us are getting the same deal.”

The Big Questions

  • Should Pete be able to keep his job if he refuses to come back to work when it reopens? Why or why not?
  • If you were Carmen, what would you do if Dr. Yellen pays hazard pay only to “essential employee” Pete?
  • If you were Dr. Yellen, what would you tell Pete?
Joyce P.
Raleigh, NC

If he’s offered his job back and chooses not to come back, his job should be offered to someone else. Though we are all at risk by seeing patients again, we’re also at risk by going to the grocery store and other places. Unemployment is temporary and there is a good chance this virus is going to be around for a very long time, so we need to get on with life. If we’re all wearing gloves and masks, along with requiring our patients to wear masks, at the very least, then there is no reason not to come back. If he is offered a temporary pay increase, every employee should receive the same. No one employee is more important than the other. Teamwork needs to be promoted; otherwise you will have a lot of resentment built up in your office.

Heidi Y.
Vestal, NY

1. No, Pete should not be able to keep his job. For a business to really succeed it needs to always be a win-win situation for both employer and employee. It could never withstand a long-term one-way street. It is a loss for the business if Pete does not return when he is needed.
2. Dr. Yellen better hope he does not get audited by the SBA. It is shaky to have this form of pay. Incidentally, “hazard” is not appropriate in this case. This is not front-line work.
3. Time to move on, Pete. Goodbye and good luck!

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David H.
Hagerstown, MD

If Pete is not sick, is offered his job and decides not to come back, he loses his claim for unemployment benefits. He may want to rethink his position. Dr. Yellen must document the job offer to Pete and his refusal. Then he must report Pete’s decision to the state unemployment office. It sounds like Carmen is Dr. Yellen’s “right-hand man,” so to speak. If he loses Carmen he is totally screwed. If Pete is aware that he will lose his unemployment benefits he may decide to come back to work at his current rate. If not, seriously interview the new applicant. Dr. Yellen should offer Pete his job back at the rate he was being paid. If anyone should get a raise or hazard pay, it’s Carmen. At this time Dr. Yellen has put his own money into keeping the practice going. He should not have to beg employees to come back to work.

Leslie P.
Webster, NY

At least interview the person who wants to work! If it is a fit, Pete needs to be replaced by that person. If he has refused to come back to work, he will not be eligible for unemployment—in theory. Will he get it anyway? Probably. If the doctor chooses to give hazard pay, he needs to do it for everyone unless he wants to replace his entire staff when they walk out. He should talk to Pete directly and let him know that he is being called back to work and if he doesn’t return, he is voluntarily vacating his position.

Jennifer R.
Sanford, FL

It does not matter what position you hold in an office, you should always remember that we are all replaceable. It might take a couple of people to replace me but it can be done.

Craig L.
Coconut Creek, FL

Everyone has different ways that they want to run their business. I personally think at this point where the virus is that it should be strictly voluntary if people want to work. No one knows what the next one is going through mentally, emotionally or physically, so they have no business telling them they have to work. No one should be forced to work if they feel uncomfortable. Each employee circumstance can be different and should be kept private between the doctor and the employee; no employee should be talking to another employee about any arrangement they have with the doctor—that would take care of these types of problems. Usually it’s normal for different people to make different amounts of money depending on the value they have to the company. No one that’s a great employee should be fired because great employees are impossible to find; resumes are easy to find. Cross-train employees and these problems will not be present in the future. If the quarterback goes down you need a backup!

David D.
San Antonio, TX

We actually had that happen, and our manager (under my instructions) notified the employee that we were all worried about COVID and taking all precautions, but we WERE reopening. Unless she came back to work, she was quitting and therefore not unemployed. Was she giving her notice and letting us tell the unemployment office that she was no longer unemployed? We were closed for a month, and now she had quit. She returned the following week and everything is fine. Everyone did get a small raise, though.

Alan H.
Wailuku, HI

The doctor should pay “hazard pay” to any employee willing to work under the current conditions. None of us signed up for work with the thought that it might be deadly! “I used to care… but things have changed.” — Bob Dylan

Chris D.
Lake County, FL

This is very touchy and is a very sensitive hot topic. Risks are everywhere. With strong protocols in place and people taking responsibility for themselves to keep safe and maintain those protocols, then if the order to return to work is issued, the employee needs to return by the date given or forfeit their place in that company. And they forfeit unemployment and all other state benefits if they refuse to work. And they can utilize their right not to face their perceived dangers in the work place. If hazard pay is given to one then it must be given to all. Otherwise you foment dissent and resentment, which will have the practice losing more employees in the near future.

David G.
Newport Beach, CA

Legally, Pete cannot continue collecting unemployment as he was offered his job back. But… let’s face it, the main issue here is that he feels undervalued, so there is temptation in collecting a higher than usual check for a few more weeks. While hazard pay might well work in the short term (and yes, this should be given to all employees), it does not solve the underlying systemic problem. The problem is that while Dr. Yellen voices his appreciation for Pete he does not show it in his salary. I think it’s unfortunate that an “excellent optician” isn’t making more than the unemployment allowance check! Pete is clearly overdue a raise if Dr. Yellen holds him in such high esteem, and the pandemic has aggravated the situation.

David G.
Beckley, WV

I think that if he wants to keep his job he should have to go back to work when work was made available. Workers’ compensation is a temporary thing. If he doesn’t go back to work, there is a possibility that there will be no job to come back to in a few months if the doctor had to close permanently. The doctor should not consider this optician a loyal employee, and hire a new optician that is willing to work. No way to offer hazard pay to just one employee and not the rest. NOT FAIR. Forget about the raise consideration also. This doctor has problems if he is so dependent on this one employee. He should always have a back-up plan. FORGET PETE!

Daniel M.
Rockaway, NY

He needs to come back to work when asked. Unemployment should be notified if he refuses to come back to work. If he refuses to come back, he is no longer eligible for unemployment. No additional pay should be given.

Mary N.
Sylvania, OH

If your business needs Pete to return to work for the office to open, the doctor should call him personally and let him know that if he doesn’t return he may be forced to hire someone. If Pete still doesn’t want to return, then the doctor can hire the applicant. If and when Pete wants to come back the Dr. will be able to choose who is the best employee. I would also let the new hire know the situation. She may do an exceptional job and she can make sure she likes the office. This can be a win-win for both of them. If the doctor cannot afford raises for everyone then no one should get more. Employees should understand that these are difficult times for business owners and if the business owners have always been fair and good to the employees I would think that they would be understanding of the situation. The doctor needs to make sure Pete understands his situation and the need to open the practice up.

John L.
Nashville, IN

First I would like to commend Dr. Yellen for recognizing Pete’s worth to his practice as an optician. Good opticians control an important percentage of the practice’s income, but are not always recognized for their contribution. That being said, of all of our abilities, availability is the most important. If Dr. Yellen is opening his practice according to state and local regulations, Pete’s refusal to work amounts to job abandonment. Dr. Yellen should immediately contact Pete to let him know that if he does not show for work when the office is restarted, the state will be notified of his refusal to work and the decision of unemployment benefits would be left to the state. Along with that, Dr. Yellen should let Pete know that he will be terminated for refusal to work. To acquiesce to Pete will not solve a problem, only create a monster.

Lori E.
Citrus Heights, CA

1. Unfortunately we are all in this together, so Peter needs to return to work or decide if he wants to be unemployed; that is his decision to make.
2. If Carmen is a valued employee, then her opinion should be weighed heavily in the final decision, but if it is a hazard for one it is a hazard for all and should be treated as such —Carmen can then make her decision.
3. The doctor should tell Peter he is valued and needed but that he will follow state guidelines that he is relinquishing his job and the state can decide his fate according to their guidelines. Maybe the 20-year new hire is the opportunity of a lifetime for the practice and the optician needing a job. We all dislike change but it is inevitable, so move forward with what is best for your practice. However, I think all workers should be offered the hazard pay if that is the doctor’s preference for reopening, to keep things cohesive.

Martha D.
Wheatfield, IN

First of all, he should not get a raise just for showing up. That is not fair to the other opticians. He should be given the opportunity to come back to his job; if he does not then he forfeited his position. Simple as that. Yes, he was a great optician, but you never know when the next great optician will come through the door. One thing I have learned is that we are all replaceable, which is sad.

Peter N.
Belfast, ME

1. If Pete refuses to come back to work he should be willing to risk his job security. If everyone else is coming back to work, he should also, unless he has a very good reason not to do so.
2. If Dr. Yellen gives hazard pay to Pete, Carmen has good reason to expect the same raise, as well as the others. That is only fair. Maybe Pete should just get back to work at regular pay.
3. If I were Dr. Yellen, I would tell Pete that unless he has a very good excuse not to return to work and does not return, his job will be in jeopardy. If that should happen, that would be the time to think about a new hire.

Lynn M.
Colorado Springs, CO

Very simple: Come to work or you will be replaced. And make sure the state knows. Good opticians are hard to find, but good employees are harder to find and Pete is not a good employee. You can teach the skills, but you can’t teach loyalty, sincerity or compassion. Hire the optician with 20 years’ experience and move on. I’m sure Pete will!

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Natalie Taylor is an experienced optometry practice manager for Advanced Care Vision Network and a consultant with Taylor Vision. Learn more at tayloreye.com.

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