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How A Pasta Factory Got People To Show Up For Work

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Zoe Chace and Robert Smith are reporting from European borders this week. This story is about the unofficial border within one country — the border that divides northern and southern Italy. This is the fourth story in a four-part series.

A decade ago, the Barilla pasta factory in Foggia, Italy, had a big problem with people skipping work. The absentee rate was around 10 percent.

People called in sick all the time, typically on Mondays, or on days when there was a big soccer game.

Foggia is in southern Italy. Barilla's factories in northern Italy had much lower absentee rates. So the company told Nicola Calandrea, the manager of the Foggia plant, that they would close the factory unless he brought the absenteeism rate down.

Calandrea decided that to save the factory, he had to change the culture.

He started sending a doctor to the houses of employees who were calling in sick every week. He figured out which doctors were signing the notes for employees who were absent most often, and sent them letters.

And, perhaps most importantly, he told everyone in the company that absenteeism was much worse at the Foggia plant than at Barilla's factories in the north. And he made it clear that the company would shut the factory down if the problem didn't improve.

All of a sudden, even workers with perfect attendance were freaked out.

"We knew we had to put some pressure on the other [workers] to say, 'You should come to work,'" says Michael Beneze, who works on the bowtie pasta line.

Beneze remembers the moment he realized the culture was shifting. Another worker asked for a day off, and his supervisor refused. So the worker called in sick — and used his sick day to play in a soccer match. He played well — he even scored a goal, and got written up in the local paper.

His fellow workers ratted him out, and he got fired. He was the only person to be fired as part of the crackdown on absenteeism.

The factory's absenteeism rate, which used to be around 10 percent, is now below 4 percent.

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