Absence policy often up to boss

Q and A

Help Wanted

June 01, 2005

Q: I was recently fired from a school for using sick time. When I started working there in August, they gave me two vacation days and two sick days. I used up much of my time when my children got sick, and then I became ill. Each time, I had a doctor's slip, but my employer said it still counted as being absent. In the end, I missed an extra day and a half of work on top of the sick time I was allowed. Is this legal?

D.F., Baltimore

A: It's up to each employer to decide its policy on whether sick days count as absences. You would have a basis to complain if your employer failed to follow its own policies, or if it treated your sick leave differently from that of other employees. Your firing could raise issues under the federal Family & Medical Leave Act. The act, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees, grants workers the right to take unpaid leave for various purposes, including if the employee has a "serious health condition." The act could apply, but only if the illness caused you to miss work or regular activities for more than three consecutive days, and the illness involved either an overnight stay in a health care facility or continuing treatment by a health care provider (for example, two or more visits to a doctor). For more information about the act, check the U.S. Department of Labor Web site at www.dol.gov.

MICHAEL HAYES associate professor of law

Q: I would like to know if a permanent employee with 15 to 25 years of service with a company can have his full-time status reduced to part time without any reason. The people involved have good work records with no disciplinary actions. In this circumstance, a contract company was hired and its staff received full-time hours. Three years later, the employees with reduced hours were moved back to full time. Should compensation have been rendered? C.O., Baltimore

A: There is nothing in the law to prevent an employer from cutting a worker's hours, and likewise nothing illegal about bringing on contractual employees to handle certain duties. The employer could also return the worker to full-time status, without any possibility of being sued for back wages. This is the net effect of working in an "at-will" state: Employees work at the will of the employer. Unless there are specific stipulations written into the employees' contract, actions like this are permissible. However, we live in an era of increased accountability and the encouragement of best practices. And while some fields are outsourcing jobs and cutting costs, others are looking at longer-term solutions to problems of profitability, such as direct compensation versus complicated benefits programs; shared governance; job sharing; cross training; banked time off; and so on. Progressive employers are out there - you just have to find them.

THOMAS BAILEY assistant professor applied behavioral sciences, THOMAS MITCHELL director of graduate programs in applied psychology, and MICHAEL HAYES

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