Help Wanted: Employer wants final salary back

A longtime hospital employee asks: If you are

A longtime hospital employee asks: If you are fired “for cause,” is it fair for a company not to pay accrued time off? (Credit: iStock)

Carrie Mason-Draffen

Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen Carrie Mason-Draffen

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

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DEAR CARRIE: I quit my job on Monday, April 30, after taking a week of emergency personal days and sick days. I received a check for that week. But now my former employer is demanding that I pay the money back because I didn't return to work afterward. My quit date is considered to be April 20, the Friday before the week I took off, and thus my employer says I am not entitled to the money.

At the beginning of the year, we were told that we had three or more emergency personal days and the same number of sick days, given at the discretion of the company.

I used three emergency days and two sick days. I take the position that we were eligible for the time and I used it to take care of a medical emergency involving my wife. She is the primary caregiver for my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. My wife became ill and couldn't care for my mother alone, and that meant I needed a job with more flexibility. So I quit. Do I have to pay the money back? Can the company file a lien against my house or damage my credit rating? -- Money Back?

DEAR MONEY BACK: If the company truly overpaid you, then it may have the legal recourses you mentioned.

"If an employer believes that it has overpaid a current or former employee, it has the right to sue the employee in court," said employment attorney Richard Kass, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Manhattan. "If the employer wins, then it will have the right to enforce the judgment through a lien or other methods."

But whether the employer has grounds for such a case is another matter.

"The question here is whether the reader has been overpaid or has merely received correct pay for sick and personal days to which he was entitled by the employer's announced policy," Kass said. "It sounds like arguments can be made on both sides. In cases like this, judges and juries may be disposed to favor the poor little employee over the big bad employer, but you never know."

DEAR CARRIE: I have worked at a local hospital for 32 years. I was told that if someone is fired "for cause," they lose any accrued paid time off. I argue that since we have earned that time it has to be paid.

I also learned that no matter how much time employees have accrued, when they quit with proper notice they will receive just a maximum of five weeks of paid time off. The rest, if any, will be lost. This sounds unfair. What do you think? -- Whose Time?

DEAR WHOSE TIME: The policy may be unfair, but it sounds legal. Companies don't have to offer such benefits, but when they do, they dictate the terms, in the absence of a union or employment contract.

And such policies are legal as long as employers tell workers up-front and as long as the rules don't discriminate.

UPDATE on "Pay in Limbo": A college student whose former employer refused to pay him got his payday. After working for two days cleaning boats, he realized the work wasn't for him. He quit and asked to be paid for those days. The owner countered that the student owed her $450 for some T-shirts and the cost of rescheduling the work.

And she threatened legal action if he didn't pay. The student's mother contacted me for advice last week. I told her to write a letter telling the owner that she had to pay him or risk state or federal labor law violations and an audit. The mother wrote the letter and returned the T-shirts. A few days later her son received a check for $250 covering the days he worked. "He is so very happy," she wrote. "To be honest, we were both a little scared, but we learned that we can't be bullied."

For more on state regulations about paid-time off and what happens to that time when employees leave, go to bit.ly/OhVNDt