Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

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

DEAR CARRIE: My 22-year-old daughter has always worked part-time in retail stores. When she first started working, it wasn't unusual for store managers to tell her to clock out and go home because business was slow and they weren't going to meet their financial goals. That often happened two or three hours after she started working. Even worse, she showed up for work for a day and they told her, "Oh we called and left a message on your answering machine that we don't need you to work today."

Unfortunately, they didn't call until she had already left for work. Since she gets a ride to work, she had to telephone someone to pick her up shortly after she was dropped off. She also worked five hours without a paid, 15-minute break. When she got another retail job, her co-workers told her that her previous employer had acted illegally. They explained that if you're scheduled to work, it's illegal to send you home unless you voluntarily choose to clock out, and that you can't work a shift of fewer than four hours.

She was also told that after four hours you are entitled to a 10-minute break. She has recently started yet another job and they treat her like the first, problematic retailer. She would like to know if she can count on working at least 15 to 20 hours a week and what breaks she can expect. -- Facts, PleaseDEAR FACTS: The co-workers at the generous employer were well-intentioned but not entirely accurate in explaining your daughter's rights. Employers, absent a union contract or other employment agreement, generally determine how many hours employees work. So companies don't have to guarantee employees a certain number of hours of work. But here's a big exception under state law for most employees: If an employee reports for work and is later sent home because of, say, slack business, then the employee must be paid for at least four hours at minimum wage, which is now $8 an hour in New York. Maybe that is the four-hour rule your daughter's former co-workers were alluding to.

As for breaks, state law says that employees must work more than six hours a day to be eligible for a meal break of at least one-half hour. No other breaks are mandated. But employers can always give employees more than the law requires.

DEAR CARRIE: Our employer closed for Christmas and took a vacation day from employees so they could get paid for the holiday. It wasn't our fault that we missed a day of work. Yet, we wound up paying the price in reduced vacation time. Is this legal? -- PTO GrinchDEAR PTO: This is a popular holiday question for the Help Wanted column because companies' policies on employee pay during such closings vary widely. Some will pay employees when the business closes for a holiday. Others will not. And others, like your employer, will deduct from employees' paid-time off. Those differences leave employees confused about what employers' obligations are.

The bottom line is this: Employers can set the terms for the benefits they offer, absent a union or employment contract that says otherwise. So your employer can legally take from your vacation days to ensure that you get paid for the Christmas closing.

Here's another perspective that might make you feel better: If you are an hourly employee, the company doesn't have to pay you when you don't work, for whatever reason. So taking from your vacation days ensures that you get paid for the unworked holiday.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Even if you and your co-workers are exempt employees, which include managers and workers whose jobs require a four-year degree, your employer could legally deduct that day from your vacation reserve. But the company couldn't legally dock your pay when the business closes if you are willing and able to work.

For more on state regulations regarding paid-time off, go to

For more on the state's four-hour minimum rule for employees who show up for work, go to