Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

DEAR CARRIE: The local magazine and book distributor where I have worked for 24 years recently cut the hours of all its merchandisers. We are the people who restock the materials at various vendors. My hours have dropped from 23 a week to 16, without any heads-up from the company. Many people have quit because of the drastic cuts. For them it was the last straw because the company a few years ago made all full-timers go part time and eliminated our medical benefits and paid time off. Since we aren't covered by a union I don't think we have any recourse. So I am wondering if I can collect unemployment benefits to make up for the seven hours I lost? -- SHORTER ON TIME

DEAR SHORTER: You're correct that without a union you have no recourse for reversing -- or preventing -- such changes to your wages, benefits and schedule. Since New York is an employment-at-will state, absent a union contract employers are free to determine unilaterally how many hours their employees work and how much they earn. Still, companies must pay hourly workers at least the minimum wage and bump that up to time and a half their regular hourly pay when those employees exceed 40 in a workweek.

And state law requires employers to inform employees ahead of time of schedule or wage changes.

As for unemployment benefits, you could qualify for partial benefits if you meet certain thresholds because of your reduced wages and hours.

Here is what the state Labor Department's website says:

"If you work less than four days in a week and earn $420 or less, you may receive partial benefits. Each day or part of a day of work causes your weekly benefit rate to drop by one-quarter. For example, if your weekly benefit rate is $100 and you work three days and earn less than $420, you may receive $25 in benefits. If you work two days, you may receive $50 in benefits. If you work one day, you may receive $75 in benefits. If you receive partial benefits, it extends the length of time you may collect benefits. If you earn over $420 in any week, no matter how many days you worked, you cannot receive benefits for that week."

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DEAR CARRIE: I am eligible to take a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to deal with an illness. My company first wants me to use up three weeks of my paid time off as part of the 12 weeks that I am entitled to under the FMLA. But since the FMLA is unpaid, would I still be entitled to the 12 weeks of unpaid leave after I use up the paid time off? The company says no. -- DEAR LEAVE

DEAR LEAVE: It's still a total of 12 weeks, anyway you slice it.

"The FMLA leave can be a combination of paid and unpaid leave," said Irv Miljoner, who heads the U.S. Labor Department's Long Island office in Westbury. "That does not extend the 12 weeks of entitlement."

Here are more details from the U.S. Labor Department's website:

"Under certain conditions, employees may choose, or employers may require employees, to substitute (run concurrently) accrued paid leave, such as sick or vacation leave, to cover some or all of the FMLA leave period."

Private-sector employers with at least 50 workers are subject to the FMLA. The public sector faces no such limits.

Miljoner said his office frequently receives questions like yours about the FMLA, which grants up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave to eligible employees to attend to a personal or family medical emergency or to care for a newborn.

Even though the law caps the time off at 12 weeks, employers can always grant employees more, Miljoner said.

"Some do," he said, "and some are very strict to the hour."

Go to bit.ly/lifmla for more on time off under the federal FMLA.