Contract may bar co-pay increases

Q and A

Help Wanted

June 08, 2005

Q: When we voted on our union contract last July, our employer offered us health benefits with stated co-pays for doctors and prescriptions. Apparently, the company that they were dealing with went out of business and we ended up with tripled and quadrupled co-pays. I think the company should be responsible for the differences in out-of-pocket expenses, since they made the deal under contract with us.

J.K., Timonium

A: When benefits and their terms are set forth in a union collective bargaining contract, as your co-pays are, then the employer cannot change them during the life of that contract unless the union agrees to the change or the contract itself allows the employer to make such changes. You could check the contract to see if its provisions on health benefits, or its "management rights" provisions, give your employer the right to increase employee co-pays if the employer's health insurance costs increase. If not, your employer's increasing the amount of employee's co-pays might be a violation of the contract, and you could ask your union to use the contract's grievance procedure to challenge the increase in co-pays.

MICHAEL HAYES associate professor of law

Q: I operate a tow truck and was forced to sign a form stating that I will be responsible for all damage to customer and company vehicles if I damaged them in any way. I had a accident with a the driver of a tractor-trailer who did not stop. My company did not turn this over to its insurance company but gave me a $2,500 bill. They started taking $200 out of my paycheck. Is this legal? Past employers also have taken money out of my check, but I never signed a form before.

J.W., Overlea

A: The deductions from the paycheck might violate the Maryland Wage Payment Act, Section 3-503 of that statute says that "an employer may not make a deduction from the wage of an employee" except in certain situations listed in the law. The only one of those exceptions that may apply to your case is where the deduction is "authorized expressly in writing by the employee." Even that exception would not apply to you unless the form you signed specifically said that the employer could deduct the damages from your paycheck. If the form does say that, then the employer is not breaking the law. Unlike some states, Maryland does not prohibit employers from making paycheck deductions a condition of employment. If the form does not allow deductions, you might be able to get help from the Maryland Department of Labor in stopping these deductions. Even if the employer cannot deduct damages from your check, the form you signed would allow the employer to sue you, I should add that if you can find the driver who caused the accident, you could sue him. MICHAEL HAYES

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