Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

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

DEAR CARRIE: While I was on staff at a local company, I referred a friend, who was hired. The personnel policy stated: "If a member refers a candidate for employment to the firm and the firm hires this person, the staff member will be paid a one-time reasonable fee for such referrals." Well, I have yet to get paid. And I was recently laid off. I've contacted the company by email but it hasn't responded. What is my recourse? What is considered "a reasonable fee" anyway? It's vague. -- Finder's Fee?

DEAR FINDER'S: Employees often wrestle with corporate lingo because vague phrases "often creep into employee handbooks and personnel policies," said Alan Sklover, senior partner of the employee-rights law firm Sklover & Donath in Manhattan. "While employers seem to believe these phrases provide them with needed flexibility, from a legal standpoint, they simply -- and unnecessarily -- invite legal disputes."

Other examples he cited are "fair compensation" and "commensurate with contribution."

The law defines reasonable as "what a reasonable person would find reasonable under the totality of the circumstances," Sklover said. That doesn't mean you go looking for a reasonable person, he said. Instead, a court would decide.

In your case, a court would consider the following questions, Sklover said. First, does the personnel policy contain any hints about what "reasonable fee" meant? Second, did the parties themselves ever indicate to each other what "reasonable fee" meant? Third, if the employer previously paid such a fee to other employees, how much did it pay? Fourth, what did the business pay employment agencies to find good candidates? And, lastly, what do most agencies charge for the service?

"Notice," Sklover pointed out, "that we started with what, if anything, is written in the policy; then we examined the expressions, if any, of the parties, and then, if necessary, we look to outsider, third parties, to determine what a reasonable fee would be."

To collect your "reasonable fee," Sklover suggests that you consider two possible remedies: filing a claim at your local small-claims court, where you can sue for up to $5,000, and get a court date in a few weeks or months, or submitting a "wage nonpayment" claim to the New York Labor Department, which could take considerably longer, he said.

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"I would strongly suggest small-claims court, as it is inexpensive, can be done without an attorney, and can get you a fair hearing on your claim," he said.

One important final note: If you received severance from your former employer, chances are you had to sign a waiver or release form, he said.

"If the reader did that," Sklover said, "he or she probably gave up all rights to bring further claims, including this one."

DEAR CARRIE: I work an 8½-hour day, which includes a half-hour, unpaid lunch break. Aside from that, our boss claims we aren't entitled to any other breaks. He will let us go to a coffee truck twice a day but we have to drink our coffee or eat our snack as we work. Are we entitled to a break? And if so, how many are we entitled to each day? -- Indigestion

DEAR INDIGESTION: Your boss is correct. State law mandates meal breaks for employees who work more than six hours a day, but no other breaks. Companies, however, can always give employees more than the law mandates, which is why coffee breaks are so common. Such breaks, in fact, are so widespread in the workplace that many workers wrongly believe they are entitled to those brief respites. Labor law says otherwise.


By the way, the meal break is legally unpaid as long as you don't work during that time.

More: Read more on  state labor law and work breaks.