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BusinessColumnistsCarrie Mason-Draffen

When employment is at will, benefits can be changed

In general, an employer can legally make changes

In general, an employer can legally make changes for an employee-at-will, which means the employee isn't covered by a contract. Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / BernardaSv

DEAR CARRIE: I work for a large Long Island company that is planning to sell my department to another company. After the sale, my job, its location and the management I report to will remain the same. That’s good news. What’s bad is that I will have substandard but costly health insurance with a high deductible, which I don’t pay now. Some employees will also lose their paid-time off. After the transition, we will be required to sign a contract barring us from returning to our former employer for one year. Is all of this legal? What if I refuse to sign? I am salaried, nonunion and have no employment agreement. — Same but Different

DEAR SAME: In general, your employer can legally make those changes because you are an employee-at-will, which means you are aren’t covered by a contract, as you mentioned.

“That means that any of her terms of employment can be changed at any time, for any reason,” said employment attorney Richard Kass, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Manhattan.

But the employment at-will rule has one big exception.

“The employer cannot discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, or any other category protected by law,” Kass said. “ But there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that unlawful discrimination is going on here.”

Now, on to more specifics regarding your questions.

Even though the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, encourages large employers to provide most of their full-time employees with affordable health insurance benefits, “there is no absolute requirement that a fixed level of health insurance benefits be provided,” Kass said.

What’s more, he added, “employers that fail to comply are not acting unlawfully,” he said. “They just have to pay a tax penalty.”

Companies don’t have to offer paid time off (PTO) to employees and can change the rules, but in some circumstances they may need to honor time accumulated under the old rules.

“If PTO was presented to employees as a vested right, then it cannot be taken away without compensation,” he said. “But depending on how the sale of the business was structured, it might be the old employer’s responsibility to pay for the accrued PTO time, not the new employer’s.”

As for the noncompete agreement, in most states, including New York, “it is legal for an employer to require employees to sign a contract that restricts them from working for a competitor, as long as the restriction is for a reasonable period of time and in a reasonable geographic area,” Kass said. “And employees who refuse to sign can be fired.”

And he added, “Even if the old employer is no longer a competitor of the new employer, the contract would probably still be enforceable, if the new employer has a reasonable fear that the old employer might try to rehire its employees.”


DEAR CARRIE: I lost my job in April of last year. As a result, I received six months of unemployment benefits. I finally got a job in May of this year. The work is seasonal and will run until mid-September. Will I be eligible to reapply for unemployment benefits after this job ends? — Back to Benefits?

DEAR BACK: It depends on whether you meet the criteria in what is called your base period, or the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters preceding the filing of your claim.

Here are some basics on eligibility from the state Labor Department:

“You must have worked and been paid wages for work in at least two calendar quarters in your base period, and you must have been paid at least $2,100 in wages in one of the calendar quarters in your base period, and the total wages paid to you in your base period must be one and one-half times your high quarter wages.”

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