Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.
DEAR CARRIE: I was recently let go from a job at an accounting firm because the owner is having money problems. I had been with the firm since 2011, except when I left for a few months to work for another company. When I first started at the accounting firm, I signed a noncompete agreement, which the owner still has. Does the layoff cancel that agreement? I believe I read in one of your columns that a noncompete agreement ends when an employee is terminated. I also have a question regarding a severance agreement. Do I have to sign it? I will probably only lose the $2,000 severance payment if I don't. I don't feel I am legally obligated to sign since I no longer work there. What's more, I think the owner has some nerve asking me to sign since he let me go for no reason other than the firm's finances. It wasn't as if I did a bad job. -- Next Step?
DEAR NEXT: Though it is always painful to lose a job, don't take it personally that you have been asked to sign a severance agreement. Such agreements are a popular way for companies to close the books on an employer-employee relationship after a layoff. And since neither state nor federal laws mandate such agreements, companies that offer them can set the terms, as they do with medical benefits.
So if you don't sign, you will forfeit the $2,000.
Severance agreements are a big deal for employers. That's because to receive severance payments, employees typically agree to a number of terms that benefit their ex-employers, such as a promise not to sue, not to divulge company secrets and not to keep company property. And that's all legal.
Unless the agreement includes something you cannot live with, you might want to reconsider your refusal to sign.
As for the noncompete agreement, it's probably void by now for two reasons. First, it's unlikely the agreement you signed in your early days covered your second tour of duty at the company, employment lawyers say. Noncompetes don't typically include subsequent employment, the lawyers said.
And second, your memory is correct about laid-off employees and noncompete agreements. They generally don't hold up in court when an employee has been laid off.
DEAR CARRIE: I work for a medical group. In order to comply with Obamacare, the office offered all employees a medical plan. However, the group made it so expensive that no one could afford it. The premium it was going to charge per pay period would exceed what anyone earned. The human resources department said the office did this to comply with the law. Is this legal? I thought it was supposed to be affordable care. Luckily, I am covered by my husband's insurance so I do not need company benefits, but some of my colleagues have no coverage because they can't afford it. -- Unhealthy Costs
DEAR UNHEALTHY: The costs do sound fishy. I spoke with the state attorney general's office. While a spokeswoman didn't say such exorbitant costs were illegal, she said her office would like to hear from you. You can reach the attorney general's health care helpline at 800-428-9071.