Do I have to give the money back?
February 9, 2012 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Can my employer force me to pay back tuition reimbursement if I leave before the required time is up?

My company reimburses employees for tuition and educational expenses. When I was given the initial information about the tuition reimbursement, I was told via email that if I didn't stay for nine months after accepting the reimbursement that I would need to return the money to the company. I never signed anything or even verbally acknowledged that I agreed to this condition.

I'm not trying to be a weasel, but a situation in my workplace has become intolerable and I'm looking to see what my options are for leaving. I plan to talk to an employment lawyer to verify what my obligations are before I leave, but I wanted to see if anyone here could provide some more information so that I know if this is something worth pursuing.

I live in Illinois and am an at-will employee. Thank you for any information you can provide!
posted by p. kitty to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a company handbook, this policy is almost certainly included.

If I were in your shoes, I would assume I would have to pay it back even if you don't have it stated in a company handbook. You were told explicitly that you would have to pay it back, and then you took the money. They have in writing that they told you of the policy beforehand. I think you're SOL.
posted by something something at 12:23 PM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

Talk to HR. They and an employment attorney are the only ones who are going to be able to answer this for you, because the question depends entirely on the nature of the relationship between you and your employer.
posted by valkyryn at 12:23 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there anything about this in your employee handbook? If so, did you sign an acknowledgement form (i.e, acknowledgement of receipt of the handbook)? Did you have to complete any forms to receive the reimbursement? If you've signed any document describing the terms & conditions of the reimbursement, you'd probably have a difficult time getting out of the agreement.
posted by pecanpies at 12:24 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your own lawyer will give you better advice than any of us can. But, in the spirit of pointing you in the right direction the answer will likely be that you will be required to repay. If you accepted the tuition reimbursement knowing what the terms are, it will not likely matter that you didn't explicitly agree: you agreed by performance.

Having said that, your employer might be happy to see you walk away without paying them back if the situation is as bad as you describe. This is probably something that you might be able to negotiate with them, especially if you have any potential claims arising from the awful workplace environment. (I'm not saying you do, or that this is likely, but it's something you should talk through with your lawyer).
posted by MoonOrb at 12:26 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I'd advise posting this kind of thing anonymously, might want to ask a mod about that.
posted by MoonOrb at 12:27 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You agreed to pay it back when you accepted it after they told you you would have to pay it back.
posted by AugustWest at 12:33 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Some places will prorate based on how long you have worked after getting the tuition re-imbursement. So at five months you would only owe half. Can you hold out in your job till that point and then approach them offering to pay half?
posted by saucysault at 12:38 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have a copy of the form you used to claim the reimbursement? Our form spells out in the small print that you will have to pay it back if you don't stay for 12 months. It is also in the employee handbook, but my understanding is that the agreement itself is a contract in which we agree to pay the tuition and you agree to work for 12 months. If you don't do your part, we get the cash back. If you didn't sign anything to that effect, it would be more difficult to prove that you had a legitimate contract with those terms, although it sounds like you acknowledge that you were aware those were the conditions which is going to tend to weaken your case.
posted by Lame_username at 12:46 PM on February 9, 2012

. . .I'm not trying to be a weasel . . .

Yes you are. You may or may not legally be entitled to be a weasel, and the law on this (as it happens) varies enormously from state to state, so you absolutely must consult an attorney familiar with employment and wage laws in your state. So here is my actual, AskMe required answer: I am a lawyer familiar with this area of the law (but I am not your lawyer and I don't practice in Illinois) and I will tell you for an absolute certainty that no one in this thread, myself included, can give you an answer to this question worth spit.

But you may as well own the fact that you are trying to be a weasel. You took the money knowing about the condition and now you want to change the deal. It is what it is. Weasels get a bad rap. They are very efficient creatures.
posted by The Bellman at 12:52 PM on February 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

Most employer-paid tuition has this stipulation. Yes, you have to pay it back, unless you have a new place of employment take it on as a hiring bonus.

I actually did this - switched companies, with2 years still to go on a payback, and the new company took it on, with the same conditions - the amount I would have to pay back was reduced on a monthly basis over 2 years, after which I was free and clear. The new company paid the old company directly.

You made the agreement. Stick by it.
posted by rich at 1:05 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Regardless of the reality of your repayment situation, until it's resolved your company has infinitely more resources to fight this in court, then delay those court dates, make you legally defend yourself at your expense, or send it to collections.

In my experience, most companies just send the amount to a third party collections company, who are inevitably less likely to agree to an amicable solution to your issue. Tread lightly. Is leaving your employment early worth the potential credit or legal damage?
posted by lstanley at 1:24 PM on February 9, 2012

I'll join the chorus of "yes you'll have to repay", but that's only if you quit. I believe that most of these arrangements don't require you to repay if it's not your decision to leave. I'll just leave it at that. Still, it's ultimately a question for HR.
posted by monkeymadness at 1:56 PM on February 9, 2012

The short answer is maybe. It's all dependant on your state and what actually happened and what can be proven. Lawyer it is. Is your company likely to be inept enough to not protect itself against people backing out of their contracts?

I'm pretty sure you should expect to pay them back. You made an agreement and now you don't want to follow through. You got paid in advance (via education) for the work you'd be doing in those months. Other than you just not wanting to pay them back- is there any reason why you think you shouldn't have to?
posted by Blisterlips at 2:46 PM on February 9, 2012

>I never signed anything or even verbally acknowledged that I agreed to this condition.

By accepting the money, you agreed to the condition.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 3:07 PM on February 9, 2012

I had a former employer who paid tuition reimbursement.. then the relationship deteriorated and I left before the waiting period was up. They just withheld it from the vacation time they owed me when I quit. (Michigan, if it matters)
posted by getawaysticks at 6:06 AM on February 10, 2012

It also depends on the profession and the industry standards there. The same rules apply in accounting - my company pays my exam fees and professional fees for getting my CA (the Canadian version of a CPA) and I have to pay it back on a pro-rated basis if I leave within one year of any of these disbursements. But based on word-of-mouth around the office, most of the time this doesn't get get pursued if you leave with a reasonable amount of goodwill, because the money is pretty insubstantial to them and the paperwork wouldn't be worth it. How big is your office?
posted by Phire at 6:12 AM on February 10, 2012

Thanks to everyone who has provided advice. I just wanted to reiterate to those who posted and to anyone that might be in a similar situation in the future and finds this thread that yes, if I pursue this further I will most definitely be talking to an employment law specialist. I just wanted to get some feedback to see if this was worth spending the time and money to pursue.

To answer some questions on details, we don't have an employee handbook and I didn't fill out any forms to claim the reimbursement. I simply sent an email to my contact at HR with the amounts and documentation in the form of bills and receipts. The only documentation I was provided for this policy was a singe sentence in an email sent to me by someone who no longer works here. It was never discussed again verbally or via email.

A piece of advice I've read here on Metafilter many times is to remember that HR exists to defend the interests of the company. This is particularly true in my circumstance and any questions I ask them along these lines would get back to my supervisors and probably cause more problems for me.

When I said that "I'm not trying to be a weasel," I meant that I had every intention of staying for the nine months, and probably significantly longer, when I accepted the reimbursement. I did not go into this expecting to somehow cheat my way into some easy money. The only reason that I'm inquiring about this now is, as I said, the work environment has become extremely unhealthy in a way that I couldn't anticipate at the time I accepted the money.

I'm not "entitled" and I'm not "outraged" that I may have to pay it back. If I could afford to pay back the money and leave I would, but I can't. Leaving the obligation unfulfilled is most certainly NOT how I want to leave this job, but things have reached the point where I need to choose between my own health and happiness and an obligation that is pretty poorly documented.
posted by p. kitty at 9:03 PM on February 10, 2012

[A couple of comments deleted. People, just answer the question, or move on. This is Ask Metafilter, where we answer questions; if you want to insult people, find another site. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 10:13 PM on February 10, 2012

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