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No notice/unilateral change in work hours/part-time to "on call" District of Columbia

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  • No notice/unilateral change in work hours/part-time to "on call" District of Columbia

    I’ve been employed at a large law firm for over 5 years in Washington, DC. I was hired as a full time legal assistant with non-exempt status. After working for 4 years I started law school and my employer urged me to stay with the firm on a part-time basis. My 4 years of experience was seen as an asset due to the high turnover rate at the firm, and they needed me to train and mentor new hires. I had a meeting with my supervisor to work on the details of my part-time employment. I signed paper work that saying that I would not be eligible for full-time benefits and the annual bonus. We orally agreed that I would maintain a minimum 3-day work schedule, with the exception that I can take 2-3 weeks off before my examination periods at law school.

    I continued to work in my part-time capacity and met my 3-day work week obligation. Before each semester started I would sit down with my supervisor and arrange my 3-day weekly schedule. For example, one semester I worked Tuesday through Thursday, and another I worked Wednesday through Friday.

    Recently, my firm has been implementing many cost-cutting measures. This morning my supervisor came into my office and informed me that he had instructions to send me home if I did not have billable work. For 1.5 years I’ve been showing up at work for my set schedule regardless of whether or not I have billable work. Some days I would be billable the entire time, others I would be 50% billable... it all depends on how busy the firm is. Regardless of being billable or not I was paid for 8 hours each of the 3 days I was scheduled to work. Now, according to this new “policy”, my schedule is contingent upon whether or not I have billable work. So, in essence, it is entirely possible that I won’t have any income. If the firm’s business continues to be slow I will not get paid at all. I’ve relied on the consistent 3-day work schedule to calculate the amount needed for law school loans, and subsequently create my budget for living expenses. Now, this so called new “policy”, which is effective immediately does not allow me any certainty in my income.

    I sat down with my supervisor today and asked many questions which he could not answer. He doesn’t know if it is an “official” policy. He doesn’t know how long this will be implemented for. He doesn’t know where or who the instructions originated from. He originally told me that part-time employees would be sent home if they had no billable work, which could possibly implicate “show up” pay, but then he stated that the firm was going to change part-time employee status to “on call” status. This would mean I get no pay at all, unless I can charge my hourly time to the client.

    So here are a few issues that I foresee:
    1) Is the 3-day per week minimum schedule, as orally agreed to, binding? I know that employment agreements largely involve implied-in-fact contracts and I think ample evidence exists. My recorded time reflects the 3-days per week and I have prior emails detailing this arrangement.
    2) If the 3-day per week oral agreement is binding, is my employer breaching my employment contract?
    3) If my employer is, in fact, allowed to unilaterally modify my schedule to include the possibility of no hours at all for an indefinite period of time, to the possibility of having a 24 hours per week? (3 days)
    4) Can an employer change your part-time status to “on call” status, whereas you are not paid?
    5) If I voluntarily resign, would this be considered as a “constructive discharge” ?

    I have a meeting tomorrow with a higher up to try and figure out the details of this new policy. However, this whole thing just seems unreasonable to me. I know employers have a lot of leeway but this just doesn’t pass my sniff test. I know they’re trying to cut costs; is this possibly their attempt at trying to push out their part-time employees? I mean come on, I can’t live like this... I’m completely at the mercy of my firm now. I have no idea how much I will be allowed to work, thus no certainty of an income. For 3 days out of the week I would be “on call” and have to drop what I’m doing to go into work on a moment’s notice. Plainly, this sucks. They have got to know this is a bum deal and I will leave the firm. I simply can’t entertain this idea of not knowing how much I will bring home each week and being limited for 3 days out of the week due to being “on call”. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to make my next rent payment.

    Basically, the law firm has indirectly said you are only worth the $250 you bill out at and nothing more. You can only get paid your $30 per hour if you at the same time bring us our $250 for that hour. No concern whatsoever for my well being or ability to meet my personal financial obligations. Greedy, dishonorable and selfish if you ask me. I understand a firm exists to make profit for the partners, but this kind of treatment is ridiculous.

    Thoughts? What are my options here?

  • #2
    1. Unlikely. Unless you have a binding contract, not an oral agreement, that states the timeframe under which the arrangement is to continue, both you and the employer are free to change it any time.

    2. Unlikely, as I doubt the oral agreement is binding.

    3. Ultimately, you don't get to set your hours. The employer does. The employer has accommodated your school schedule for several years. That's no guarantee that it must continue to do so going forward, in light of a bad economy. Surely you've worked in a law firm long enough to know that no law firm will carry someone who isn't billable indefinitely.

    4. Yes.

    5. Possibly.
    I am not able to respond to private messages. Thanks!


    • #3
      Wow, OP, you are really upset! Understandable.

      Know, you are not alone in your situation.

      From an employer's POV though, I assure you, they are not doing this specifically to YOU alone just to make YOUR life miserable. I'm sure if they didn't have to, they wouldn't. The economic pressures of keeping a business functioning ARE NOT "Greedy, dishonorable and selfish if you ask me."

      I've a full-time team member with extensive personal financial problems probably more severe than yours. Just last week I gave them a two-week notice that their 40 hour work week is going to be cut to 32 hours due to the fact that the over-head of keeping the business opened on it's least revenue-generating day is draining the business budget, and thus jeopordizing ALL our jobs. Therefore, the business is going to be closed that day. This team member is understandably not happy about the situtation, but my hands are tied. Payroll on that day was exceeding business income that day, therefore, the business could not afford to pay anybody to be working on that day. The loss of 8 hours may not seem like much, but to this team member, it is alot of money they really can't do without.

      As the business owner who made the decision, trust me, it was not a "greedy, dishonorable, and shelfish" one. Actually, I dreaded making it for a month because I knew the financial difficulties of the team members affected, and probably cost the business more with my procratination than just making the decision a month earlier when the warning signs pointed towards a downwards spiral.

      Yes, my company exists to make a profit. Profit is what keeps people employeed and helps business owners re-invest in their business to make a better business. When there is no profit, there is no money available to pay team members who are minimally productive. In reductions of work force, the first to be let go are the part-timers and on-call individuals. Such is survival of the fittest in the work place.

      I am truely sorry that what is happening to you is at such a difficult time in your life, but don't hold a grudge against your employer. It is very difficult to predict the future, and therefore don't blame your supervisor for not having all the answers for you. At least they are willing to keep you in an "on-call" status, which is a positive thing, because it does mean you are still on their rosters and employed by them, so when business picks-up, hopefully you'll be on the top end of the call back list. Therefore, don't do anything as drastic as resigning, which burns your bridges and leaves you no possiblity of being called back. If you voluntarily resign, unemployment insurance might not find in your favor.

      Best of luck to you, and I would recommend you start job hunting or look into Unemployment insurance.


      • #4
        Or you could look at it another which is that you seem to expect them to keep you on at your convenience for years while you finish school, while not actually doing work while results in income for the business. Their purpose isn't to support you while you go to school. That is what parents are for (and then for a limited amount of time). Anyone else isn't obligated to accomodate you. Particularly in tight economic times. Be glad they are offering you the billable hours rather than letting you go entirely. If you think you can find a better deal with the same flexibility elsewhere, go for it. Right now, I woudn't bank on it.
        I post with the full knowledge and support of my employer, though the opinions rendered are my own and not necessarily representative of their position. In other words, I'm a free agent.


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