A change to the attendance policy at AGCO has workers upset.

HESSTON — A change to the attendance policy at AGCO has workers upset.

Union representatives say the change represents a departure from the union-negotiated contract with the company, making taking a sick day count in a point system, which can lead to the termination of an employee.

“Don’t get sick; they’ll fire you quick” was the first chant of the day for United Steel Workers Local No. 11228 as they munched on pizza during their lunch break.

About 250 employees joined a rally Thursday.

“I don’t know if anyone heard us, and I doubt this changed their minds,” said local union president Brian Lansaw. “But over the long haul, they will hear us.”

At issue is a decision by AGCO to do away with “free days.”

In the current contract, negotiated with the union in 2005 and extended until 2011, a worker could take three sick days without being accessed “points.” The fourth sick day carried with it one point, while missing an entire day after that carries a two-point penalty. A point also can be assessed for being late to work or leaving work early.

Accumulation of 16 points is grounds for termination.

“This is an issue where there is a huge divide between us and the company,” Lansaw said.

It’s also an issue with the attention of members of AGCO’s corporate offices in Duluth, Ga.

Doug Durand, director of corporate marketing, said he wasn’t “well versed” enough in the specifics of the leave policy at the Hesston plant to discuss specifics — only that the company will work with the union to resolve the dispute.

“We expect to be able to bring this to a positive resolution,” Durand said. “We are still working through this issue with the union. ... We want to try and keep a positive relationship with the union. The people there do good work for us.”

Durand said he did not know what the company may choose to discuss with the union to deal with absenteeism rates at the Hesston plant.

The policy change, which AGCO notified employees about May 12, now charges the two points for sick days — whether it is the first sick day taken during the year or not.

“There are a lot of people that never used those free days,” said union member Sandy Hardin. “They didn’t use the one point day, and now they can’t use them at all. They say they can make this change, and we say they can’t.”

The union has filed a grievance and also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor seeking to have the policy changed back to it’s original form.

But those actions will take time, and changes will not come over night.

“I think this will be a long, drawn out thing, and the best thing we can do is keep the pressure on,” Lansaw said.

Lansaw said the policy change has been bad for morale at the Hesston facility, and when it was first announced workers were very angry. He said much of the initial anger has settled.

He said he believes the change was made as a way to address absenteeism rates, which Lansaw admits is “at or below the national average, on the lower part of the range.”

But he said had the union been approached about improving the absenteeism rates at the Hesston facility, the company and union could have worked together to find a way to deal with that issue.

“I don’t have the answer for that right now,” Lansaw said. “But we would work with them. There are things we can do.”