Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.
DEAR CARRIE: I understand that New York is an "at will" employment state. But is it true in all circumstances? A friend was recently dismissed from a major retail chain because he was looking for a similar but higher-paying job elsewhere. The person who dismissed him stated only that my friend had violated a confidentiality agreement he signed when he was hired.
Is this an unfair restraint on a worker's basic right to change jobs? How does seeking better pay render a person fit only for the unemployment line? My friend was an exemplary employee. He had no problems on the job with attendance or work performance. Did his employer act legally? -- Legal Ill Will?
DEAR LEGAL: It certainly seems unfair, but you hit upon what makes the company's actions legal. New York is indeed an employment-at-will state, and that means employees not covered by a union contract or other employment agreement can be fired at any time for no reason at all.
Here is what the state Labor Department's website says:
"If there is no contract to restrict firing (like a collective bargaining agreement), an employer has the right to discharge an employee at any time for any reason . . . An employer may fire an employee for no reason. An employer may also fire an employee for a reason that might seem arbitrary and unfair . . . "
It is illegal, however, to fire workers for discriminatory reasons based on such things as race, gender and age.
DEAR CARRIE: I am resigning my position as a care consultant at a nonprofit organization. When I have my exit interview, the executive director is going to discuss the times she closed the office last winter because of bad weather. She maintains that I owe 20 hours of comp time because of the closings, and plans to deduct the time from my final check. Is she allowed to do this? I didn't make the decision to close; she did. Meanwhile, I facilitated a support group twice a month and earned 12 hours of comp time. Is she required to pay me for this? -- Comp Confusion
DEAR COMP CONFUSION: Your employer's timing could make her plan illegal. Generally when a business closes because of bad weather, it's legal for an employer to deduct the missed days from their employees' paid time off, said employment lawyer Richard Kass, a partner at Bond Schoeneck & King in Manhattan.
But backtracking is illegal.
"If comp time was not deducted at the time, it is not permitted for the employer to change the rules retroactively and deduct comp time months later, on a whim," Kass said.
Regarding your support-group comp time, whether you should be paid for that time depends on your employment status. If you are nonexempt, which generally means paid by the hour, you have to be paid for all hours worked, and that would include the support-group work. But if you are exempt, meaning that your duties place you in the professional, administrative, executive or outside-sales categories, your employer doesn't have to pay you for any extra time.
"If the employee is exempt, then the employer has no obligation to pay comp time for extra work that is part of the same job," Kass said.
But as with any regulation, this rule has its exceptions.
"If the employer promises comp time for certain activities, it must keep its promise," Kass said.
For more on employment at will in New York State and paid-time off go to http://bit.ly/Rm05h9.