Rejecting a paycut
September 14, 2020 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Can I "refuse" to take a paycut? Help me think through the implications.

I work full-time for a university. I found out about a year ago that I'm quite underpaid (by 10- 20K) compared to my colleagues with the same job title and experience. I asked for a raise earlier this year due to the parity isues and the fact my job responsibilities have increased. My boss was supportive of my request, but was also very slow to press the issue with HR. Once the pandemic hit, the university froze most (but not all) HR actions, and that was the end of that discussion.

Now the unversity is announcing that furloughs and/or paycuts are coming. Last recession, they cut everyone's paycheck by a substantial percentage, so I think this is very likely to happen again. Though I understand the reasons for it, I find the idea of a taking a paycut offensive, given the fact I'm already so underpaid.

If they propose to cut my pay, can I refuse? What happens if I do this?

I'm also in an MS program, and I'm nearly done. I have 6+ months living expenses saved up and would love nothing more than to be able to focus on my remaining coursework for the next few months.

When I look for other jobs, how might this situation get framed? Does it look like I quit, or does it look like I was laid off or fired for not agreeing to a paycut?

I don't want to burn bridges at my current job, and I don't want to inadvertently make my next job hunt more difficult. At the same time, I am really struggling right now to balance full time work and full time graduate school, and I don't see the point in continuing to put effort into a job that pays me less and less every year. What potential pros/cons am I not thinking of here? Andecotal stories appreciated, too.
posted by Anonymouse1618 to Work & Money (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
You should look into the unemployment rules in your location - it's possible that having to take a pay cut for the same work would count as constructive dismissal and you could both refuse to take it (i.e. quit) and get unemployment. (N.b. I am not an unemployment lawyer and I don't even know what country you're in, so this may not apply.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:03 AM on September 14 [11 favorites]


Thanks RN! I'm in the US
posted by Anonymouse1618 at 8:10 AM on September 14


Your state is also very important for unemployment insurance etc. A significant pay cut could make your job “unsuitable employment” that you can choose not to accept without making yourself ineligible for unemployment but that will depend on the facts of the case and your local unemployment rules.

Other things you may want to consider would be whether you would ever want to work for this employer again, since this could burn a bridge (either a formal “not eligible for rehire” thing or just a general burned bridges kind of situation).

Regardless if you’re asked about it in the future, I think it would be incorrect to say that you were fired - you could just explain the facts, that with a pay cut it no longer made sense for you to keep the job.
posted by mskyle at 9:15 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


Not exactly an answer to your question: This isn't something you need to do alone. Consider whether organizing with your coworkers should be your first step. Secrecy about pay and the shame we're taught about talking about it benefits only employers.

Also realize that having "actions frozen" probably means you're not getting a yearly cost of living adjustment, which is also in itself a yearly cut in your real effective pay.
posted by fritley at 9:25 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


Are you part of a union?
posted by latkes at 9:43 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


When I look for other jobs, how might this situation get framed? Does it look like I quit, or does it look like I was laid off or fired for not agreeing to a paycut?

"They announced pay cuts and I decided to bow out of working to focus on completing my MS. Now that's done and I'm excited to return to full-time work at a market rate."

Even in non-COVID times, taking a little time off from work to complete a MS/PhD is not going to raise red flags with any employer worth working for.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:42 AM on September 14 [19 favorites]


Sorry to threadsit - it's a state institution, and my state prohibits collective bargaining :-/
posted by Anonymouse1618 at 11:35 AM on September 14


Are you in a protected class (are you a woman, person of color, veteran, etc?), and do you have any sense that you are underpaid relative to folks who aren't in a protected class?
posted by bluedaisy at 12:01 PM on September 14


re: how the situation may look to a prospective employer, Tomorrowful gives a great example of how to frame a response if you do end up needing to explain as part of the process of applying for a job. Any vaguely professional employer will understand that an employer not being willing or able to continue paying your agreed salary is a very reasonable trigger for you to end a job.

I sometimes interview people in the wonderful world of IT, and there's a reasonable amount of applicants for jobs who have very short stints (perhaps a few months) of employment listed on their CV. If the topic even comes up during an interview -- it often doesn't, we're usually more interested in trying to figure out the skill level of the applicant and how they can help, rather than dig into their employment background -- as an interviewer I have a huge amount of empathy for people who explain things like "I was working for the startup and the startup ran out of money to pay our wages, so I needed to find a new job". Like, what else are you meant to do? Similarly for an employer announcing large pay cuts.
posted by are-coral-made at 3:35 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


> If they propose to cut my pay, can I refuse? What happens if I do this?

My understanding (as per RN's excellent link re: constructive dismissal) is that your employer is indicating they wish to negotiate a new employment contract with you, to replace the existing employment contract. So either both parties reach mutual agreement to start a new employment contract, or the old contract continues (with the same negotiated wage & role), one party decides to unilaterally terminate the contract, or both parties mutually agree to end the contract.

If your employer proposes cutting your pay, you could try responding along the lines of "I am already underpaid by $10k-20k compared to my colleagues with similar experience and ability in similar roles, so it does not make sense for me to accept an additional pay cut. However, I understand the university needs to reduce costs."

Then you could counter offer with one or both of the following:

1. "If the university is offering voluntary layoffs to help reduce costs, I am open to taking a severance package"
2. "I am open to switching to a part-time role. I can complete (high-skilled specialised) tasks X,Y,Z while only working monday-wednesday each week, and remaining (low-skilled, generic) tasks such as Q,R,S could be handed off to colleagues T, U or V. How about I reduce my hours to three days, mon-wed each week, for a 25% reduction in weekly wage? "

If you're open to doing part-time work, suggesting something along the lines of option 2 is worth trying. 40% less hours for 25% reduction in weekly wage would still give your employer a way to cut costs and also give you a 25% increase in your daily rate! They're probably not going to take you up on that offer, but they might! Or they might counter-offer with something that's fairly attractive.
posted by are-coral-made at 4:17 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]


Are you in a protected class (are you a woman, person of color, veteran, etc?), and do you have any sense that you are underpaid relative to folks who aren't in a protected class?

I just want to clarify this, because it's something that a lot of people misunderstand and it might affect the OP. From the perspective of US employment law, there's no such thing as a person who is not in a protected class.

If you have an ethnicity, that's a protected class. If you have a gender identity, that's a protected class. If you have a nationality, that's a protected class. And so on.
posted by teraflop at 7:05 PM on September 14


If you have an ethnicity, that's a protected class. If you have a gender identity, that's a protected class. If you have a nationality, that's a protected class. And so on.

Let me re-phrase. Do you feel like your pay is lower because of your religion, gender, veteran status, etc?
posted by bluedaisy at 7:17 PM on September 14


Who is paying for your MS? If it's a benefit as part of your compensation package, make sure you understand what that means if you leave your job.
posted by CathyG at 9:54 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]


One thing to consider re: unemployment is that being in a degree program might disqualify you from it even if you were otherwise eligible, since if you are unemployment generally you have an obligation to be looking for work and unless you're taking classes mostly at night I believe pursuing education can be seen as something that would prevent you from taking a job if offered.
posted by knownfossils at 11:29 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


If your boss was sympathetic to giving you a raise prior to the pandemic, if a pay cut is suggested, enlist their help to exclude you from the cut as a way to start to "catch up" your compensation. If everyone in your role takes a 10% (or whatever) pay cut but you do not, then you are that much closer to being on par. I would negotiate a refusal enlisting your boss' help with the appreciation that they may say no and you are without a job there.
posted by AugustWest at 12:19 AM on September 15


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