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I'm an undergraduate in the U.S., and a few weeks after starting my tutoring job this year at my university, my employer changed the manner in which I am being paid.

I signed a form that states "ALL TUTORS ARE PAID 8 HOURS, unless told otherwise." However, a few weeks later, I received an email stating I would be paid for the exact number of hours worked. I had this same job for the past two years, and I was paid for 8 hours while only working 5 hours each week, and the department was fully aware of this. They hired me again without indicating things had changed until after I signed the form.

I spoke with the person who sent the email, and she said that she was sorry I misinterpreted the statement "ALL TUTORS ARE PAID 8 HOURS, unless told otherwise," and that it actually means that it is expected that people with my position will work at most 8 hours. I expected she would say that I am now being "told otherwise," so the contract had not been violated, but that was not the case.

It seems like my university may have done something wrong, but I'm not sure. In particular:

  • The sheet I signed seems pretty informal, and it was clearly made by someone in the department just for this position. It's not some government form with a name. Does that mean it isn't legally binding?
  • If it is legally binding, does the phrase "unless told otherwise" mean that it has not been violated? It seems like the moral thing to do would probably be to tell me before starting to work, but maybe its still legal to do it afterwards. The department totally thinks that the sheet is being violated, but it's possible they're in the clear without realizing it.
  • Even if it is a binding contract and it has been violated, does that mean anything? Am I supposed to just quit and look for a job elsewhere, or is there something else I ought to do?

Thanks for the help.

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It is not necessary for an agreement to be verbose and written by a lawyer, for it to be binding. There is some danger in having untrained people writing up agreements (they don't know the distinction between "what the law says" versus "what we had in mind"). The agreement is binding, but their interpretation of the contract language does not automatically prevail.

The statement "ALL TUTORS ARE PAID 8 HOURS, unless told otherwise" is slightly problematic since it is not true (you can't pay time, you pay money for time spend). With no other statements about time and payment, and just looking at the words, this says that an employee will be paid for 8 hours work, period. Unless they say something different. That could mean "even if you work 20 hours, you only get paid for 8" (illegal under various labor laws), or it could be "even if you only work 2 hours, you get paid for 8" (the most reasonable interpretation). The interpretation "You are limited to 8 hours of work per pay period / contract" is not a reasonable interpretation: that isn't what the clause says. Such a limit could be clearly expressed ("can work up to 8 hours" is a clear way to state the limit), and since they didn't say anything like that, that is not how the courts will read the clause. They can, however, inform you otherwise, e.g. say "your minimum automatic pay is now 2 hours", or "we will only guarantee 2 hours work", and at that point that's what the number is. Since this is (presumably) a take-it or leave it contract which they wrote up and you didn't actually negotiate, any unclarities are legally interpreted in your favor.

If you have worked more than 8 hours and they are using the contract language to argue that you won't be paid for the overage, that is not at all likely to hold up in court. Under terms of the contract (interpreted as stating a minimum guarantee of hours), they can inform you that your new minimum is 0 hours. Also, unless there is some kind of tenure clause, they can terminate the contract at will, and maybe they'll hire you under a different contract.

What the terms of employment were for you in the past does not matter, what matters is what the current terms are. If you did not pay attention to the fact that they changed the terms of the agreement as of this quarter, that is not their problem. If they decided to change to "actual hours worked" after the current contract was formed, and they informed you of that fact later, then thereafter that is what the agreement is. Until you are notified of that change, the guaranteed minimum is what it says in the contract.

In case their argument is "The university sets this policy, the department made a mistake in not informing you", the university has to take responsibility for the errors of their inferiors.

  • Thanks for the help. The department's argument is that the university sets the policy, and they never should have had that clause on the sheet. I worked for two weeks before they told me that I would not be paid for 8 hours. I was not paid for 8 hours during those two weeks. Would I be correct in saying that the department did something wrong, but only during those two weeks? In that case, I'm thinking it's a small enough amount of time and money that nothing will come of it. – user13975 Oct 18 '17 at 18:20
  • I suspect they meant something like "all tutors are paid up to 8 hours", which would be an understandable way to communicate the idea in casual conversation. That's speculation, though. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Jul 11 at 21:03

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