Q: I work as a salaried employee in an office with a mix of salaried and hourly workers.
Due to a recent reorganization in the office, we find ourselves with a temporary office manager who has decided that we should attend lunch meetings two or three times a week to improve communications and get better organized. We also have to attend scheduling, marketing and other organizational meetings as well.
Does an employer have the right to require employees to attend lunch meetings? Are the rules different for hourly employees?
--B.M., Canoga Park
A: Employees who are exempt from overtime and various other workplace rules can be required to attend such meetings.
Simply being paid a salary does not necessarily make you exempt, however. You must also be classified and actually doing work as a professional (doctor, lawyer, etc.), manager (supervising two or more people more than half your time) or administrator.
Regardless of how your employer lists you, look at what you do to determine if you are being properly classified as an exempt employee.
If you are nonexempt, there are many additional rules regarding lunch and other breaks as well as overtime. Nonexempt workers can't be required to attend such meetings without appropriate compensation--their normal wage.
It also would be illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who complains about rule violations.
--Don D. Sessions
Employee rights attorney
401(k) Funds Intended for Retirement Only
Q: I wanted to withdraw funds from my 401(k) account at work for personal reasons. I was told that without a documented financial hardship, I would only be able to gain access to the funds if I terminate my employment.
While I understand the financial ramifications of an early withdrawal (taxes and penalties), I find it highly distressing to learn that my funds are unavailable for whatever purpose that I deem appropriate. Is this correct?
A: Funds accumulated in a 401(k) plan are intended to be used for retirement, not for just any purpose that you deem appropriate. In other words, it is not simply a tax-deferred savings account.
Because of the significant tax advantages associated with 401(k) plans, Congress has restricted participants' access to these funds to such situations as termination of employment or a legitimate financial hardship.
Your employer is obligated to provide you with a summary plan description that covers the relevant features of the plan. This document undoubtedly includes a description of the limitations on your access to the funds in your account.
--Kirk F. Maldonado
Employee benefits attorney
Riordan & McKinzie
Can Company Take Leased Car Away?
Q: I work for an automobile company where one of the benefits is leasing a car. The company supplies insurance. They took away the car I was leasing because they said I wasn't keeping it clean.
Do they have the right to do that?
A: That would depend on the terms of your lease and of any written agreement or policy that applies to this benefit.
Let's assume the lease is in the company's name, that there's no lease provision prohibiting the company from requiring you to return the vehicle, and that you do not have an employment agreement or policy that guarantees you will have a leased vehicle. If that's the case, your employer probably has the right to remove this benefit after deciding that you were not taking adequate care of the vehicle.
The employer also would have the right to demote you or reduce your salary for damaging or not taking proper care of company property.
--Michael A. Hood
Employment law attorney
Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker
There May Be Recourse When Job Outsourced
Q: I was laid off when my employer outsourced my position while I was on sick leave. Is this legal?
--Y.N., Los Angeles
A: It may be, depending on the circumstances and your employer's motivation.
An employer outsources a position by using an independent contractor to provide services previously performed by one or more employees. Outsourcing has gained popularity with many employers as a means of reducing labor costs.
If your employer had legitimate business reasons for outsourcing your position, the actions may be perfectly legal. One indicator of your employer's motivation is whether your position was the only one that was outsourced or whether it was part of an overall restructuring. If other employees who were not on sick leave also lost their positions, you may not have any recourse.
However, if your position was the only one that was outsourced, it may indicate that the real reason your employer let you go is because you took sick leave. In that case, you may have rights under state and federal laws.
You may want to contact the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or, in the case of a work-related injury, the state Division of Workers' Compensation, to determine if these laws apply to your situation.
--Josephine Staton Tucker
Employment law attorney
Morrison & Foerster
If you have a question about an on-the-job situation, please mail it to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictate it to (714) 966-7873; or e-mail it to email@example.com. Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.