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SHOP TALK / Orange County

Boss Limits Sick Leave After Elective Surgery

ALSO: * Demotion Despite No Review; * Terminating Pregnant Worker

November 22, 1998

Q After undergoing elective cosmetic facial surgery, I divulged the nature of the procedure to my employer. Even though I had a doctor's order that I was to be off two weeks because of the risk of infection, my boss allowed me to take only one week of sick time. The rest was counted as vacation time.

I am an exempt employee in upper management, with way over 100 hours of sick time. Can my employer arbitrarily allow only one week of sick time despite my physician's order?

The company said the decision was based on the fact that mine was "elective surgery." My response was that all surgery is elective; it is always your choice to have it or not.

--M.S., Lake Forest


A There is no law that requires employers to provide paid sick time for their employees.

However, if an employer has an internal policy in which it agrees to pay sick leave, its promises must be enforced and applied fairly. If your employer's policy specifically allows only one week of sick time for "elective surgery," then that may be all you can get.

Review the company's policy. Evaluate how it discusses sick time and elective surgery. It is possible that your employer's written policy states that only one week of sick time is allowed for elective surgery, and that employees are required to use vacation time for any excess time off.

You might have a claim if the company led you to believe you could use all your sick time, and did not adequately explain the limitations.

You might also have an argument that the initial surgery was elective, but the possibilities of infection thereafter were beyond what you or your doctor may have anticipated initially and therefore were subject to your employer's sick-leave requirements.

Emphasize the fact that you have not abused sick leave in the past. Try comparing yourself with other employees who consistently use all of their sick time. The company might be more lenient with you if it knows your record.

Determine whether the company's policy provides incentives for employees who do not use sick time. Some companies award vacation days or pay to employees who do not use up their allotted paid sick leave.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

Demotion May Be Legal Despite Lack of Review

Q My husband's company recently demoted him from a manager's job and decreased his salary by 30%. He had held the job for 18 months. At another company, he had held the same position for three years and received excellent performance appraisals.

His current employer did not give him any reviews. When he was demoted, the company provided a list of deficiencies and told him that he was the worst person they ever had in that position, although he is a "good worker."

Although he was in an exempt position and is considered an "at-will" employee, it seems like the company's actions are illegal. The income cut amounts to $15,000 a year, which will put a sizable dent in our budget.

Your thoughts?

--D.W., Long Beach


A Many employers consider it good management practice to give regular employee evaluations. But unless there is a contractual guarantee that such evaluations be given, employers are not required by law to provide evaluations.

In fact, many employers choose not to give formal employee evaluations because supervisors often give unrealistically favorable evaluations, thinking it is necessary to do so to maintain employee morale. When an employee with generally (but unrealistically) favorable evaluations is then terminated for poor performance, the employee often feels betrayed and the employer gets sued.

The fact that your husband did not receive any reviews prior to being demoted does not make his demotion illegal. Unless he can prove that his demotion was illegally motivated (on account of race or other protected category, or in retaliation for complaining about some unlawful act of the employer), or unless he had a written contract guaranteeing that he would hold the management job, his demotion would appear to be legal.

The fact that he received good reviews from another company is not relevant. Different employers are entitled to (and often do) have differing expectations of their management personnel.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips LLP

Labor law instructor, UC Irvine

Temp's Gain Might Be Pregnant Worker's Loss

Q I was hired as a temporary employee to fill in for someone on disability and then pregnancy leave. My employer considers me an asset to the business and would like to keep me as a permanent employee and terminate his former employee. She worked for the company five months and will be off four months.

Does the law regarding hiring and firing "at will" apply to this situation, or would his former employee have legal recourse against him?

--J.T., Santa Barbara


A Your question raises issues of disability and pregnancy discrimination.

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