Q: I work as an administrator for a medical services firm that covers a wide geographic area. My job has recently changed, and I am now expected to use my own car much more than I would like. I don't think the 31.5 cents the company reimburses me for mileage fully covers the gas, oil and other upkeep, as well as the higher insurance costs and the increased depreciation of the car.

In the past, when I traveled for work a lot, I was given a paid company car, and my employer paid for maintenance and insurance. I realize only now what a good benefit that was.

A: According to the American Automobile Association, it costs an average of 47.4 cents per mile to own and operate a new car. That includes the gasoline, oil, tires, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, registration, taxes and financing. That's based on a new U.S.-made car such as a Chevrolet Cavalier LS, a Ford Taurus SE or a Mercury Grand Marquis GS. On the other hand, a 1976 Volkswagen Bug is much less expensive to operate.

Workers in big cities face the highest costs, partially because of higher insurance costs, and because cars experience greater wear and tear in the cities.

"Clearly urban driving, which entails more starts and stops without getting the car fully warmed up, is harder on a vehicle than driving 40 miles on a rural highway," said Phil Haseltine, president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety.

One piece of good news here. The Internal Revenue Service recently boosted the standard deduction for automobile use to 32.5 cents a mile, effective Jan. 1, up from 31 cents. Many companies peg their reimbursement rates to the amount the IRS allows them to deduct.

But companies can pay whatever rate they want. John Allenstein, a consultant for Runzheimer International, a firm that helps companies develop transportation policies, said firms need to consider what their management goals are in developing reimbursement plans. Do they want workers eagerly hopping in their cars to visit clients, or do they want to discourage the practice? Do they want their employees driving the latest sport-utility vehicles, or will their policies lead to their workers driving around on company business in jalopies?

Workers should consider negotiating for more lucrative reimbursement policies, or for perks such as company cars, Allenstein and others said. One concern for workers is that if the company pays above the standard IRS rate, the excess payment becomes income that is subject to taxation.

Q: I am an immigrant from South America who came to the United States almost two decades ago. I recently rejoined the ranks of job seekers after raising my family. It has been a learning experience, to say the least.

I recently was negotiating a contract to begin work as director of a child-care center. We had reached agreement regarding all aspects of the job, such as work hours, responsibilities and benefits. When I went to sign the contract, I was told there were some "minor changes," including a raise in the workweek from 40 hours to 50 hours without additional compensation. Is it legal to sign a work contract for over 40 hours?

A: Yes, it's legal. In general, managers and other professional people can be asked to work whatever hours are deemed necessary to accomplish the tasks at hand.

In fact, 50 hours would be considered an easy schedule for a child-care director, said Marcy Whitebook, founding director of the District-based Center for the Child Care Workforce. Many directors work 60 hours a week or more because they must be available in the morning hours, Whitebook said, when working parents drop off their children, and often at the end of the day as well.

"They're sort of like Grand Central Station for all the problems in day care," Whitebook said. She added that these jobs can be stressful because they require managers to juggle budgeting and staffing issues and the multiple social problems that arise within the families they serve.

It's such a heavy workload, often with low pay, that roughly one in three child-care workers leaves the job each year, about twice the turnover rate at the average U.S. company, according to Child Care Workforce. For more information on the child-care industry, call the center's hot line at 1-800-UR-WORTHY.

Feedback

We received many comments in response to a recent column that featured a letter from a Virginia woman who had been fired when she asked for a reduced work schedule to accommodate medical treatments for infertility. Most expressed sympathy for the woman.

A handful of writers in Southern California said the woman might have had additional legal recourse. A law professor said that in some states and municipalities, the woman's situation could fit under sex discrimination statutes that would allow her to pursue a lawsuit against her former employer. Even if the woman lacked specific legal recourse, an investigation by a state agency can cause an employer to reevaluate the decision to terminate the worker, a state official said.

This is an important point in workplace issues: If you have a legal question, always investigate the relevant state and municipal laws. Generally, federal employment laws govern employer behavior in the workplace, but some states have additional provisions that apply to smaller businesses. Depending on the state, these laws can be administered by the state labor or industrial relations department or agencies that administer state civil rights laws.