Nothing seems to raise the ire of workers more than employers taking away benefits they assumed would always be there. But in a sluggish economy, companies everywhere look to save a buck, and that means that some benefits get cut.

So, workers want to know, can they do this?

QThe not-for-profit I work for is converting to a paid-time-off system. Employees will receive a certain number of days each year to use as they choose for vacation, sick leave or personal days. I have no complaints with the proposed system as long as it is applied evenly. Unfortunately, in converting to the new system, management is eliminating "banked" sick leave. I have more than 50 days of unused sick leave that will be converted to five PTOs -- 10 percent of what I've banked. Can my employer retroactively change a benefit that I've already earned and accrued? Needless to say, the new system has created quite a morale problem with long-term employees.

AThe legality of management decisions is often open to interpretation, and such is the case here. Declan C. Leonard and A. Richard Thorsey, two Northern Virginia lawyers who have represented employers and workers, differ on this worker's plight.

In Leonard's view, companies "can change the policy prospectively, not retroactively. If an employee has received an entitlement that's already vested, that's something he's already earned."

But Thorsey said he's not certain that would be the case with sick leave, unlike, say, for accrued vacation time. "It's sick leave, not an accrued dollar amount. He could use it only if he's sick. They're not taking dollars out of his pocket," Thorsey said. However, he said the worker could certainly make a claim for use of the accrued leave if he is ill and needs the paid leave.

Thorsey also said if the worker is employed under a union or personal services contract defining the sick leave, he would be able to keep it. A company handbook also might spell out the benefit, but he said most companies explicitly reserve the right to change their policies at any time.

On the Job suggests that the worker and his similarly affected colleagues attempt to show management why they think the new provision unfairly affects them and see what kind of a compromise they might be able to reach.

Before last year, retired employees at my Fortune 500 company enjoyed a life insurance policy equal to the extent of their pension. The company has announced it will no longer provide this for future retirees, but those who are retired would retain this provision. As most of the employees are not anywhere near retirement age, they have time to purchase life insurance at reasonable rates. Unfortunately for me, I am nearing retirement and the cost is prohibitive. Could this be considered a discriminatory practice?

Similarly in this case, Thorsey said, "I don't think that's illegal. They're not taking it away from someone who's already vested in it," the retirees.

He suggested that the worker, since he is near retirement, check with his company to see if he can still retire with the benefit, and then possibly return to work on a contract basis, an accommodation that some companies might consider.

Leonard said he thinks since the benefit is age-related, it could be challenged as a possible violation of federal retirement laws.

-- Kenneth Bredemeier

E-mail your workplace questions to Kenneth Bredemeier at Discuss workplace issues with him Wednesday at 11 a.m. at