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A Most Awkward of Topics


Everyone wants a job that's interesting, challenging and fulfilling, but let's be honest. The two things we want to know about a prospective job above all else are what it pays and what the perks are.

A disappointing first paycheck or problems taking vacation time can make for an awkward and embarrassing scene. But even if you think you've nailed down your compensation package before starting a new job, questions can arise. Circumstances change, rules are interpreted differently or a new assignment can raise unexpected issues.

Here are some questions that can arise in those situations:


Dear Ms. Work Wise: Three years ago during an interview for my current job, the man who hired me said I should expect 5% raises annually in my first three years. In fact, my raises have been about 2% a year. Unfortunately, the man who hired me has long since left the company. I didn't get anything in writing, but I think the raise talk during the interview constituted a contract. Do I have a legal leg to stand on to demand the additional money promised?

--Holding the Bag

Dear Holding: Only a very shaky leg. This scenario illustrates why it's imperative to get any promises on raises or promotions in writing when starting a job.

Things could easily come down to your word against the word of the person who hired you, and it could be very difficult to prove there was an oral contract for specific raises, especially since he's left the company. Also, there could be questions about whether these raises were made in the context of you or the company performing at a certain level.

Another complication is that the statute of limitations for breach of oral contract is three years, so you might have missed your chance for a claim. The bottom line is that talk is cheap, and if you're not careful, your raises will be too.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: I've worked at a small company for 10 years and I'm now entitled to 20 days of vacation annually. My 4-year-old daughter attends a cooperative nursery school nine months a year that requires parents to work at the school twice a month. To meet my obligation at the nursery school, I've decided to use my 20 days by taking every other Monday off for the next 40 weeks.

I proposed this plan to my supervisor but he rejected my request for a series of three-day weekends, saying vacation must be taken at least a week at a time. I've never heard this before, and we have no employee manuals covering vacation rules. Employees have earned their vacation time; aren't they free to decide when to use it?

--Involved Dad

Dear Dad: It might come as a shock, but vacations are a perk that employers legally can restrict. For example, companies will frequently say that vacations can't be taken during busy seasons or that two employees can't take a vacation at the same time.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: My wife and I both have jobs that provide health insurance. My company offers a $500 bonus to employees who have coverage elsewhere and opt out of the company's health insurance plan. My wife wants me to drop my company's insurance to get the bonus. I am reluctant to do so and believe we're better off with two plans "just in case." My wife disagrees as her plan is very comprehensive and we could use the cash. Is there any advantage to keeping double coverage?

--Curious in Covina

Dear Curious: There are many things to look into before grabbing the bonus. The first issue is to find out how quickly you can re-enlist in your plan if you need to. This could come into play if your wife lost her job, was killed in an accident or got fed up with you and filed for divorce. If you could not rejoin your insurance immediately, you could find yourself uninsured for some period of time--a dangerous situation.

Second, you will want to compare the two plans closely. Your wife's plan might have a higher deductible, which could make taking the bonus senseless. Or perhaps some specialties are not covered by her plan, such as psychiatry or treatment from a chiropractor. If you have a particular doctor you like, make sure that physician is covered in your wife's plan.

Make sure getting rid of your medical insurance doesn't affect other coverage. In some instances, dental or vision insurance is bundled with medical and you could be forfeiting more than you realize. For workers close to retirement, find out if dropping insurance now will affect coverage during retirement. Some plans require that retirees be enrolled in an insurance plan when they retire to remain covered during retirement.

Finally, ask for an explanation from your human resources department of the advantages and disadvantages of dropping insurance. There may be other issues to weigh before making a decision.


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