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Firm Must Provide Insurance Benefit Information

January 21, 2002

Question: I work on the night shift for a small company that decided to change to a new health insurance plan.

The company arranged a meeting for workers on the day shift, providing an insurance representative who explained the details of the plan. The company refused requests for a similar meeting for night shift employees, who have received no information other than a notice that we need to hand in the paperwork for the new plan.

Is there anything illegal about this situation? If so, what can be done about it?

--D.M., Cerritos

Answer: An employer is required to provide information about the benefits it provides its employees, although your company is not required to schedule meetings for all shifts.

Since no meeting is planned for your shift, you should consider asking the human resources department for details of the new health plan.

Your request would be appropriate. To make intelligent decisions about health insurance, you should have access to appropriate details about the plan or choice of plans to determine how they affect you. For example, doctors who are providing medical treatment to you or your family may not be covered under a particular plan.

If your employer fails to provide the information you request, you should consider consulting an attorney.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

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Credit for Unused Sick Time in Retirement Plan

Q: My employer's retirement policy states that if I take my retirement benefit as a monthly annuity, I will get credit for my accumulated unused sick time. However, if I choose to take my retirement benefit all at once in cash, I will lose credit for all of my accumulated unused sick time.

Can they do this?

--J.K., Los Angeles

A: Under most retirement plans, the amount of your service is determined by the number of hours that you are paid--hours on the job as well as paid vacation leave.

It would seem that accumulated unused sick time would fall into this same category, but you should submit this question to the plan. Rules regarding the claims procedure will be detailed in the summary plan description that your employer is required to give you.

If you do not get a satisfactory response from the plan, you should consider seeking the assistance of the Department of Labor.

--Kirk F. Maldonado

Employee benefits attorney

Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison

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Noncompetitive Pact Might Be Unlawful

Q: Several months ago, I took a job with a small sales company. Soon after I started, management approached me with a broad noncompetitive agreement that stated I would not go to work for any company that directly or indirectly competes against them for a period of five years from the date of my departure, whether I resign or am terminated.

I signed the document because I feared losing my job.

Can my employer legally make me sign such a document, even though the position I took is entry level and the pay is modest?

--S.G., San Bernardino

A: Assuming that you are not being provided with any ownership interest in the company, your employer cannot make you sign a noncompetitive agreement.

California law makes such agreements unlawful in most circumstances. In fact, the courts regard that law to be so important that they have held it is wrongful termination for an employer to fire an employee for refusing to sign a noncompeting agreement.

Your employer will not be able to enforce the agreement you signed if you ever leave the firm.

However, under California law, you can be sued if you were to attempt to use your employer's trade secrets to compete against it, regardless of whether you signed the noncompetitive agreement.

--Michael A. Hood

Employment law attorney

Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker

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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 www.latimes.com/shoptalk.

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