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How to Deal With Possible Relationship Gone Sour

April 19, 1998

Q: We have two employees (we think) had a romantic relationship. Now they seem to be at each other's throats. We don't know whether it's because they broke up or are having a personal quarrel, or whether it's work-related. Should I ask one or both of them what's going on?

--J.M., Irvine

A: First, I am going to assume that your job responsibilities make you the appropriate person in your organization to address the issues. If so, you should speak with both employees about their workplace conduct and let them know that it is unacceptable. Whether you inquire about their personal relationship depends in large part on whether one of the employees supervises the other and whether your organization has a non-fraternization policy.

If one of the employees supervises the other, their relationship could have very negative spillover effects at the workplace. Other employees could complain that the person having a relationship with the supervisor is getting preferential treatment. Or, if the relationship turns sour, the employee in the subordinate position could claim that the relationship was never consensual, but rather a form of harassment.

If there is a supervisor-subordinate relationship between the two employees and if your company has a non-fraternization policy, your inquiry into their relationship will seem less intrusive and will give you a basis for taking action, such as changing whom they report to or even taking disciplinary steps.

If the employees are simply co-workers, there probably is no reason, at this point, to inquire about the nature of their personal relationship. However, if one of the employees complains that the other is harassing him or her at the workplace because of their personal relationship, you may need to handle it as you would any sexual harassment complaint. In other words, you should investigate, determine whether harassment has occurred and, if it has, take disciplinary action to ensure that it does not occur again.

--Josephine Staton Tucker

Employment law attorney

Morrison & Foerster

Status of a Part-Time Domestic

Q: I am a domestic worker who works one day a week in each of several homes. I am paid a suitable wage, but my employers refuse to pay Social Security or file W-2 forms for me. This makes it difficult for me to file a tax return, and it deprives me of earned income credit and Social Security retirement credit. Each does pay me over the threshold required for them to pay Social Security taxes and to report my income. They have indicated they would fire me if they had to pay Social Security and give me a W-2. I don't want to get them in trouble, but I can't afford to lose these jobs as I am a single mother. What can I do?

--D.P., Los Angeles

A: Based on the facts given, it would appear that you are self-employed. If so, it would be your responsibility to report income and ordinary and necessary business expenses on a Schedule C, the form for self-employment income. You would pay tax on any profit, as well as your own Social Security, or self-employment taxes, on any profit over $400. These figures would then be used to determine if you are eligible for the earned-income tax credit.

--Judith A. Golden

Public affairs officer

Internal Revenue Service

Pay Requirements for Overtime Work

Q: I recently started a new job as a "special projects" assistant to a vice president. I was told that since I work with the executives of the company, my position is exempt, although I have no management responsibility and no decision-making authority.

The hours of work for exempt employees are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I always thought, exempt or not, an employer could not require you to work longer than nine hours a day or 40 hours a week. The company says these work hours are a "condition of my employment." What is the law in this area? Is there any way I can raise the question without risking my job?

--D.D., Redondo Beach

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A: California law requires that employers pay overtime compensation for work performed beyond 40 hours in a week by nonexempt employees. Even though your employer may regard you as an exempt worker, it is the law that determines your status. Exempt workers generally are professionals or managers who supervise two or more people over half of their time, or administrators with a great deal of independent judgment who perform important work for the employer.

It appears that you may in fact be a nonexempt worker. Employers are not restricted from making long hours a condition of employment, but they must pay appropriate overtime to nonexempt employees. Since you are concerned about risking your job if you raise the issue, you might consider calling the state labor commissioner's office or an attorney to determine whether you are nonexempt.

You then should decide whether to complain now, or wait until later, when your employment status is more secure. Make sure you keep detailed, accurate records of all hours of employment. Keep copies of your time cards at home. Consider writing a very diplomatic memo or letter if you complain. Should there be subsequent retaliation against you, the letter would provide evidence. Laws prevent an employer from retaliating against an employee who complains about the failure to pay appropriate overtime.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

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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, or e-mail it to shoptalk@latimes.com. Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column should not be construed as legal advice.

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