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Personal Personnel Information

October 22, 2000

Q: If a vendor or collection agency contacts a company searching for a former employee, can the personnel department release the last-known address of the former employee or does that violate some privacy law?

--B.S., Aliso Viejo

A: Certain employee documents such as medical records are confidential under the law. But I know of no statute prohibiting a company from disclosing the last-known address of an employee.

It's possible, however, that the company has made certain promises not to reveal information in personnel files or other private details about employees. You should review the company's employee handbook or other policy statements on the subject. If management promised that such information would be released only to the employee, then provided it to a third party, the employee might have a claim against the employer for breach of contract.

Regardless of whether or not an employer's actions violate a specific law, employers sometimes decide against certain actions because of what is "perceived" to be the law or the rights of the employee.

Disclosing a former employee's address to an unknown third party might cause extreme financial damage or even physical harm to that person. The employer must understand that such carelessness and disregard for the welfare of a former worker could result in a lawsuit and possible liability.

A better approach for the employer would be to tell the inquiring party that it will pass along word of the inquiry to the former employee, leaving the decision to him or her whether to respond.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

Acquiring Company Can Change Pay Scale

Q: I have worked for the same bank for 25 years and have a salary that reflects my longevity.

As a result of a merger with another bank, I stand to lose approximately $5 an hour. The supervisors say I will make up this loss under an incentive program. But during the last seven months of the merger, the incentives have not offset all of the lost pay.

Do I have any recourse when this occurs?

--N.Z., San Pedro

A: Probably not. It is perfectly lawful for the new bank to have a lower salary structure than the old bank.

In limited circumstances there may be an exception where a changed salary structure has an adverse impact on older employees. For example, if the only employees who suffered as a result of the wage change were older, long-term employees, you may have an argument that the employer's salary change amounts to age discrimination.

However, from the circumstances you described, including the opportunity to make up some, if not all, of the difference through an incentive program, it seems unlikely that an age discrimination argument would be successful.

--Jo Tucker

Employment law attorney

Morrison & Foerster

Changes Shouldn't Affect Pension Already Earned

Q: After 24 years on the job, I have been informed that our pension plan is going to be changed at some future date. I am fully vested and will turn 65 in March 2001. I do not want to retire. Can my employer deny me the pension that I am entitled to under the current plan?

I do not know what the new plan will be. I only know that my employer has stated that it cannot afford the current plan.

--R.B., Los Angeles

A: Your employer cannot amend the plan to reduce the benefits that you have already earned. However, the rate at which you may accrue additional benefits in the future may be reduced. If the plan is amended to reflect such a reduction, you will receive a notice from the employer explaining the change before it becomes effective.

If you are interested in learning more about your pension rights, information in nontechnical language is available on the U.S. Department of Labor's Web site, at http://www.dol.gov/dol/pwba.

--Kirk F. Maldonado

Employee benefits attorney

Riordan & McKinzie

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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; dictate it to (714) 966-7873, or e-mail it to shoptalk@latimes.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. Recent Shop Talk columns are available at http://www.latimes.com/shoptalk.

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