Q: I'm from Japan, and for five years I worked as a sales manager for a Tokyo-based hotel chain. After I married an American man, my employer asked me to take a job in the United States selling hotel rooms. I signed a contract with the company's U.S. subsidiary for the salary and benefits, but it did not say where I was to conduct business. They wanted me to work out of the San Francisco area, but I realized I could not afford to live there on the agreed-upon salary, so I picked Las Vegas for my base of operations. I relocated there in October 1998, rented an apartment, shipped my belongings there and leased a car. In November, I informed the U.S. subsidiary that I was ready to begin work. They told me they did not have a valid contract with me, and then they began refusing to return my telephone calls. I had given up a lucrative job in Japan, had drained my savings to survive in Las Vegas, and was forced to cancel my apartment and furniture lease, all at considerable expense to me. What can I do?
A: Foreign assignments hold a powerful allure to workers with adventurous souls. Companies reaching out to global markets, meanwhile, need workers to move abroad. But employees need to beware, lest experiences that enrich their spirits also deplete their bank accounts.
Most companies are quite generous to the workers they choose to represent their firms overseas, and many workers actually improve their standard of living by working abroad. According to William R. Sheridan, director of international compensation services at the National Foreign Trade Council, for a three-year assignment, U.S. companies typically spend $600,000 to $1 million in moving expenses, travel costs, housing, salary, cost-of-living differentials, school fees and income taxes for each expatriate employee.
"It's unusual to relocate to a foreign country at your own expense," said Don Bentivoglio, a New York-based consultant with Runzheimer International who specializes in expatriate relocations. "That should have been a red flag."
Bentivoglio said workers who are being asked to relocate, whether in the United States or overseas, should ask for a "letter of assignment" from their employers that spells out the purpose of the move, what the company expects from the worker, and exactly what, how and when the company will pay. He said workers should also expect to be assigned a relocation counselor who will help handle the details. The cost of living in different cities is usually factored in, he said, so the worker is not financially injured by the move.
Bentivoglio said most companies have specific relocation policies: They'll ship a dog, for example, but not a $1 million thoroughbred Arabian horse, or they'll transport a boat that is up to 14 feet, but not a three-masted schooner.
"Always try to get as much in writing as you can before you go, and ask your attorney to review it," he said. Otherwise, he said, "you're left holding the bag on the other end."
One bright spot for the letter writer is that she had a contract, which she should take to an experienced employment lawyer for review, he said. It may provide her with additional rights that are enforceable under contract law.
Q: I work at a private, nonprofit group home for delinquent teenage boys. As a full-time salaried counselor, I am required to stay on site one or two nights per week to back up the night staff. This is in addition to a 40-hour week. Part-time, hourly staff are also required to stay one or two nights a week. I'm pretty dedicated to this place, but we have been wondering if we should be compensated for this overnight duty. We've noticed that sometimes when we have openings, the best-qualified candidates turn us down because they don't want to stay away from home at night without being compensated.
A: Because you are a professional, salaried worker, your time pretty much belongs to your employer, barring any specific municipal or state laws or industry standards that govern your work situation. But the hourly people should be paid for the hours they work, particularly when they are awakened in the night to work, according to "Your Rights in the Workplace," a Nolo Press book. They may also be eligible for overtime, especially in California, where a new overtime law takes effect Jan. 1.
Employment lawyer Barbara Kate Repa, the book's author, suggests that the counselors, whether hourly or salaried, ask for a review of the agency's compensation policy by the nearest state or federal labor department office. Sometimes, she said, companies try to give workers "glorious titles" and call them salaried when their duties aren't really different from those performed by hourly workers.
"It's how a lot of companies try to get around the wage-and-hour laws," she said.
Howard Smith, senior director for professional affairs at the American Counseling Association, said any social service agency that required counselors to work overnight without pay would likely see its quality of service erode because highly skilled workers, especially those with families, would leave and be replaced by workers with less training.
Smith said that many people in the helping professions are altruistic and willing to work long hours on behalf of their clients, but that poor working conditions lead to a degradation of professional standards. He suggested that the workers raise the issue with government regulators and local branches of their professional associations, such as the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers.