Monday, October 27, 2008

The Implications Of Not Paying Wages On Time

Sephardi Lady (over at Orthonomics) has an interesting piece on a story that ran in the Times Herald Record last week. The story (carried by both YWN and VIN) concerns hotel workers upstate who were not paid on time because of Yom Tov. Specifically, as the story goes, the paychecks were sent to an office in New York, but because no one was there over Yom Tov to forward them to the hotel, the workers pay was delayed.

The workers were last paid on Oct 2. It would seem to me that they are probably paid every other week (or else they would have gotten their Oct 9 paycheck after Yom Kippur).

While you might think that this is just the sort of screw up that happens once in a while (hey, we're all human, right?), it should be pointed out that the same thing happened last year as well. One would think that the hotel staff would learn from past experience and try to prevent such a thing from happening in the future.

I've worked in several places throughout my long and varied career(s). When I worked for frum employers, not only did they make sure that Yom Tov didn't delay wages for two weeks, but they actually made sure to pay *early* if Yom Tov or a legal holiday came out on a payday. Payday was Friday, but if Yom Tov came out Thursday and Friday that year, we had our checks before we left the office on Wednesday. Needless to say, the non-frum (or non-Jewish) employers also made sure that (depending on the place) (a) if payday was a holiday we got paid early or (b) we got paid on the next day -- and everyone knew well in advance of the policy and the delay was never longer than over the weekend.

Truthfully, there really is no excuse for what happened at the hotel. Yes, as I said, people screw up sometimes. But then there are ways to handle it. As I've done before on my blog, I'll present the right way and the wrong way:

Wrong Way:

Workers ask about their paychecks on the 16th. You think to yourself "oh no, they're probably in the Brooklyn Office which is closed for Yom Tov." Oh well, they're poor workers, what can they do? Quit? Nah, they won't do that -- they'll be afraid that they'll never see thier money at all. I'll just call the Brooklyn office and leave a voice message telling them to mail out the checks first thing in the morning when they come back from Yom Tov vacation next week.

Right Way:
Workers ask about their paychecks on the 16th. You think to yourself "oh no, they're probably in the Brooklyn Office which is closed for Yom Tov." You get on the phone with someone from the Brooklyn office. You apologize profusely for asking them to go into the office on Chol HaMoed, but this is an emergency. You ask them to go to the office, find the package of checks and have them sent Fedex overnight to the hotel so that they'll be there first thing in the morning. Failing that, you actually go down to Brooklyn yourself and get the checks and bring them back to the workers.

Barring that, you call up the payroll company and order them to overnight new checks to the hotel. Then you call the Brooklyn office and instruct them to destroy the checks when they get back from vacation.

In short, you have to do everything in your power to make sure that workers get paid on time. One of the commenters on YWN makes the point (I'll take his word for it that it's correct) that the lav (negative commandment) prohibiting delays in worker pay does not apply to non-Jews. That may or may not be so. However, even if delaying the payment of a non-Jews wages does not result in a violation of the commandment, there are still three very important points to consider:

1. Are you sure that *all* the workers are non-Jews? Isn't it possible that some of them *are* Jews and, therefore, you *are* in violation of the mitzvah?

2. Even assuming that they're all non-Jews, so what if one is not in technical violation of the commandment? It's *still* not fair or right to withhold wages. If you make an agreement with your workers that they will be paid on a particular day, they have a right to expect payment on that day. It's simple honesty, courtesy and the way that you would want to be treated.

3. I'm no lawyer, but I'm fairly certain that New York state has laws that require wages to be delivered to workers on time.

One thing that always puzzles me about this sort of scenario is how is reflects on the trustworthiness of the proprietors of the establishment. After all, if they're willing to delay someone's wages, in violation of state law (for which there are legal mechanisms of enforcement), how can you know that their business isn't being run in ways that are in violation of other halachos (for which there is no effective legal enforcement mechansim). Once someone openly displays dishonesty (and withholding of wages is dishonest), how can you consider them to be trustworthy with regard to the mitzvos?

Interestingly enough, I've had this experience twice over the last three years with both of my sons' bar mitzvahs. The first time was when I went to commission the writing of Walter's tefillin. The second time was when I went to pay the caterer for the kiddush in shul in honor of George's bar mitzvah. In both cases, I was given the opportunity to "save" the sales tax by paying in cash. In both cases, I turned it down -- and in both cases, it left a very bad taste in my mouth. If they were willing to be dishonest about the taxes, how could I be sure that the tefillin or the food were completely kosher? In the former case, at least, I can report improvement. When I went back for George's tefillin (you can check out the original post for the reason I was willing to go back) there was a sign in the store indicating that *everyone* must pay sales tax. In the latter case, this problem only surfaced after the kiddush was already over. But I can say this -- as nice as the caterer was to us (and he was) I would have serious hesitations about using him for any future function.

I'm not going to sit here and claim that I've never done anything wrong in the past and that I've always been honest in everything I've ever done. I'm only human and, yes, I've had my weak moments and acted in ways that I am less than proud of. But I don't go around offering people ways to cheat and steal from others (and, let's face it, that's what tax evasion is). I'm also not going to say that I pay every bill on time -- sometimes things happen and payment gets delayed. But when it does happen, I try to make sure that they get paid as soon as possible and I try to take any and all steps possible to see to it that it happens. I certainly don't use excuses such as "the office was closed." Especially when it's the worker's sole livelihood and the delay is an unacceptable two weeks and when the excuse is a lame "the office was closed."

The Wolf

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's also the very serious issue of chilul Hashem. There is already a stigma that Jews are greedy, cheating, money-horders. This just reinforces that in a way that is mechalel shem shamayim.

Joe in Australia said...

If I can be melamed zechus, where I live it would be quite hard for a retailer to avoid paying sales tax: they will get in trouble if the sales tax they collect is inconsistent with the amount of business they've done (which is reflected in their purchases). None the less, I can imagine a retailer offering a discount for immediate cash payment and *for convenience* stipulating that it will be equal to the amount of sales tax. Of course he could offer a 5% or 7% discount instead, but an arbitrary figure will expose him to unwanted bargaining by the customer. Better to offer a discount equal to the (already calculated) sales tax, which the customer will recognise is a standard and therefore unnegotiable discount. Afterwards the retailer will pay tax in the normal way, on the lower total.

BrooklynWolf said...

Joe,

Interesting idea, but somehow it just doesn't pass the smell test.

The Wolf