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Can Firm Dock Pay for Mistakes?

January 28, 2002

Question: I work for an employer that pays both an hourly wage and commission. It is a common practice here to deduct income as a reprimand for mistakes.

Is this legal?

--S.F., Huntington Beach

Answer: It is illegal for an employer to deduct income for your mistakes, even if you are negligent. The employer is responsible for business losses.

However, if your mistake was the result of intentional misconduct or gross negligence, then the employer may be justified in docking your income.

And even if the employer can't dock you for mistakes involving simple negligence, you can still be fired or disciplined.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

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Company Can Require Bank Account Numbers

Q: My employer's new online system for processing travel expense reports reimburses employees through direct deposits to their bank accounts.

This requires employees to provide their bank account numbers to the company.

If an employee does not provide this information, he or she cannot travel on company business.

Is it legal for an employer to require its employees to provide personal information such as a bank account number?

--A.E., Lakewood

A: Yes, it is legal to require you to provide such information.

Although as an employee you do have a right of privacy, that right is not absolute.

Here, the employer's interest in streamlining its expense-reimbursement procedures would appear to outweigh your privacy interests.

--Michael A. Hood

Employment law attorney

Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker

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Employer Can Choose How to Treat Leave Time

Q: Upon my return to work from maternity and family leave, my employer paid my vacation time in one lump sum, per union and company guidelines.

However, last year another employee took maternity leave and was allowed to keep her vacation time instead of receiving a lump sum.

Do I have any recourse? I want my vacation days returned, but the company refuses.

--C.H., Los Angeles

A: Neither state nor federal laws require an employer to provide employees with paid vacation time. Likewise, no law dictates how an employer must handle accrued leave time for employees on leaves of absence.

Employers are free to handle these situations as they choose, as long as they do not discriminate on some illegal basis such as an employee's age, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, disability, medical condition or sexual orientation.

Employers also can treat different employees differently, unless they are doing so for a discriminatory reason.

For example, it is common for employers to provide managerial employees with greater benefits and greater flexibility on using those benefits than they provide lower-level employees.

I suggest you contact your union representative to discuss your concerns. He or she may be able to explain why you were required to use your benefits or may be able to persuade management to reinstate your vacation.

Unless you can prove that your employer had a discriminatory motive for the way it treated you, however, you would not have any legal recourse.

--Diane J. Crumpacker

Management law attorney

Fried, Bird & Crumpacker

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Often Illegal for Firm to Withhold Commissions

Q: Our employer has told us that if we are fired or decide to quit, he is going to keep any commissions due us.

He made us sign a document stating this and told us that his lawyer checked and determined that it is legal.

Is it?

--T.R., Riverside

A: If your employer is keeping commissions that you have earned, the answer is no, it is not legal.

In other words, if you have done everything that is required to earn the commission, your employer simply can't keep it because you quit or were fired.

However, if there is additional work to be done to complete the sale, or if all of the conditions for receiving the commission have not been met--the customer has not yet paid, for example--your employer may be entitled to withhold all or a portion of the commission.

--Jo Tucker

Employment law attorney/arbitrator

Morrison & Foerster

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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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