The San Francisco Chronicle

Workers Must Know the Laws That Protect Them on the Job

Reynolds Holding

The reality is that even employers who know the rules usually get away with ignoring them.  Few workers keep up on their rights, and even fewer have the resources to enforce them–or the confidence to challenge the boss.

KYLE BUTTS WAS good with a wrench and smooth with the customers, but he knew he would never get rich working as a grease monkey at the Apple Valley service station just north of San Bernardino.

 His friend, though, he seemed to have it sweet. He worked for a big auto-supply outfit called Snap-On Tools. And when he told Kyle the company had an opening, Kyle jumped at the chance. 

 "It really sounded like a great opportunity," he says, "working for a Fortune 500 company."

 And it was. Until Kyle actually took the job.

 He discovered that he had to buy his work van, a big ugly truck with a Snap-On logo and a price tag of $35,000. He had to pay for fuel, a pager, a cell phone, business cards, a uniform, long-distance calls and a $1 million liability policy naming Snap-On as a beneficiary. He had to cover a territory that stretched across the High Desert area and reached north as far as Mammoth Lakes.

 And those two weeks off he was promised? He lost them if he didn't take them each year, and he lost his commissions if he did.

 Sweet, indeed.

 The $60,000 salary Kyle figured to pull down annually was suddenly sliced in half, consumed by his outrageous expenses, and he remembers thinking that "there's got to be laws against this."

 Lucky for him, there are.

 California is one of about a half dozen states that require an employer to pay "all that the employee necessarily expends or loses" on the job. That means the cost of company cars, phone bills, office supplies and anything else workers have to buy to do what they were hired to do.

 California also says bosses can't enforce a "use-it-or-lose-it" vacation policy. If the employee gets two weeks of vacation each year, she keeps the two weeks whether she uses it that year or not. The only exception: Accumulated vacation can be limited to a reasonable amount -- eight weeks, for example.

 The state enacted these laws decades ago to force employers to bear the full cost of doing business, says San Francisco employment attorney Steve Zieff.

 "They make sure you really know what you have to live on," he says.

 But a lot of companies that do business nationwide don't know the local rules, and they apply the same policy in North Carolina as they do in California. Which is understandable, because who wants to treat workers differently depending upon where they live?

 The reality is that even employers who know the rules usually get away with ignoring them. Few workers keep up on their rights and even fewer have the resources to enforce them -- or the confidence to challenge the boss.

 Kyle Butts, though, is one of the few.

 When his wife took off work to have their second child a few years ago, Kyle could barely support the family.

 "I was angry and I felt betrayed," he says. "So three of us down here started talking about it, and we figured we got to do something."

 They hired a lawyer who contacted Zieff, and before long they had put together a class-action lawsuit involving almost 400 employees of Snap-On Tools.

 But that was just the beginning. The employees had signed agreements requiring disputes to be arbitrated out of court, and the arbitration rules barred class-action suits and any claims more than 1 year old.

 Zieff and his colleagues eventually persuaded a judge to toss the rules and allow the class-action suit to proceed under a three-year statute of limitations prescribed by state labor laws. More haggling ensued, and in May the parties reached a remarkable settlement.

 Snap-On agreed to pay $8.4 million, with $5.6 million going to the complainants and the remainder going to the lawyers. Each employee received an amount based on his job and time with the company. About 100 got more than $25,000 and as much as $50,000, says Zieff. The payments were made last week.

 As one of the class-action leaders, Kyle pocketed about $50,000, and says he's "real happy."

 "When things started going our way, Snap-On started to make changes" to reimburse employee expenses, he explains. "It all turned out for the better."

 Kyle now manages a computer network for Pitzer College in Claremont. Snap-On declined to comment on the case, other than to say it does not admit any wrongdoing.

 One wonders, though, how many other companies are cheating their workers of vacation time and failing to reimburse employee expenses. There have been only a few of these cases, and no law works very well unless people know it will be enforced.

 "Employers have got to learn," says Zieff, "that what they can get away with in Mississippi isn't going to fly in California."