Water works

Q: I work in the medical field, in an old building where we see patients. When I first started, we had a water cooler in our break room. That made sense because we have a kitchenette with no sink. The only other water in the building comes from sinks in clinic rooms, and in the single-stall bathroom.

We were recently informed that the water cooler, now in the waiting room, will only be for patients because of cost increases. This situation, while far from ideal, doesn’t appear to be in violation of any laws. But I don’t love the idea of drinking water from a shared bathroom.

The situation is also less than ideal since our building is one of the oldest and least well-maintained on our campus. I doubt the pipes are in good shape. My boss has said she wouldn’t drink the water from the building, and explained that she was just the messenger. I suppose I can haul water from home, though it is a bit of a hassle. Beyond just sticking it out, do I have any other rights to water when I’m at work?

A: According to an OSHA regulation, your employer is obligated to provide potable water that allows employees to have individual access to said water. Technically, your employer is doing that, though as you note, the situation is far less than ideal.

You don’t legally have any other rights to water. That is unfair. Few of us would want our only water access at work to be from a bathroom sink. You can certainly ask for access to the water cooler and outline your reasoning. I believe your boss when she says she is just the messenger, but part of her job is to fight for her employees. Ideally, she would protest this rather ridiculous restriction. How much money could this move possibly save? In the interim, yes, bring water from home. There are lots of great water bottles these days that will keep the water cold all day until this situation is resolved.

To be made whole

Q: In January 2020, I got a great job. While modest, I was thrilled with the salary and fantastic health insurance. I was doing something new and exciting for a company I respected. Then the pandemic hit and in late July, I was told that I would be laid off. Fortunately, a startup that I was working with through my employer was able to offer me a position doing essentially the same job, but with significantly more responsibility. I would be the first full-time hire, after the co-founders. Unfortunately, it also meant a 30% pay cut, with no benefits or guarantee of stability.


I believed the founders when they said the salary was all they could afford. They also assured me they would raise my salary when they could. My offer letter states that the company “will seek to increase salaries as commensurate with our ability to increase the company’s revenue.” I took the position without trying to negotiate salary, and I ended up working one month unpaid before officially being hired.

The company has grown from three to eight employees and significantly increased its revenue. I have contributed a lot to this growth. However, my salary is still nowhere near where I was when I started my previous job in January 2020, and even further below the market value for my position. I have also learned that recent hires, with similar responsibilities, are paid significantly more than I am, despite having similar or less professional and educational experience. Over the past year, I’ve asked for raises and made it clear what my salary expectations are. The response from my boss has been that the company just can’t afford it.

What obligations does the startup have to me? Shouldn’t loyalty and commitment be considered as a component of performance in reviews and raises? And given the language in my offer letter, what grounds do I have to speak up for myself, without jeopardizing my position?

A: There are so many red flags here. An offer letter is not a legally binding contract, and the verbiage they put in about pay increases says absolutely nothing specific about your circumstance. You worked for free for a month? Why? I understand why you took this job. I do. You were facing precarity, and a job with a pay cut is better than no job at all. But your employer took advantage of you then, and they are taking advantage of you now.

Companies will never claim obligations to you beyond paying what they said they would pay you. And to add insult to injury, you have no benefits? Run away from this job as fast as you can. Never accept a lower salary in the hope that you will achieve some kind of pay parity somewhere down the professional road. If you accept less than you should command from the outset, you will never be made whole. You have worked hard and helped the business grow. You know the company is in a good financial position. But they know you’re willing to work for less. They have no incentive to pay you more.

Your boss is saying they cannot afford to increase your salary. What he really means is that they don’t want to and will not pay you more. This is deeply unfair. You deserve so much better. As I state in this column regularly, the job will never love you. It’s time to look for new work and to advocate for yourself, vigorously, from the outset.


Reimbursement woes

Q: I work for a small newspaper owned by one of the larger chains that, in turn, is owned by one of the wealthiest people in the country. I booked a series of flights several months ago for trips we anticipated making this fall. I would normally not do that so far in advance, but I did so at my bosses’ insistence. As such, the bookings are nonrefundable and nontransferable.

In a few weeks, I will be leaving this company for another professional opportunity. I have been told as part of my departure, I must cancel the flights, keep the credit and reimburse the company for the balance. We’re talking nearly $2,000; I was barely paid a living wage and this is a significant expense.

In addition, I have an infant at home, and my family lives close by. I have no plans to fly anywhere in the foreseeable future. I have balked at reimbursing the cost of the flights and told the higher-ups it was not only their idea but that it’s the cost of doing business. What is the proper recourse here?

A: Do you have emails where your employer insisted you buy the tickets so early? Definitely hold onto those because you may need them. The plane tickets are their problem, not yours. You bought the tickets for work travel at their insistence. People change jobs all the time, which is why, among other reasons, you buy refundable tickets for work travel. That they didn’t have the foresight to do this should not be your problem.

I don’t think they can force you to repay them for the tickets. If you’re feeling generous, you might call the airline, ask for a supervisor and explain the situation to see if there is any flexibility here. Many airlines have relaxed their refund and cancellation policies because of COVID-19. At the very least, maybe you can transfer the tickets to a current employee.

Stop playing on my phone

Q: I began a new job last fall, coming off a very stressful work environment. A particular issue I faced was having to use my personal cellphone as my work phone. I changed jobs because I wanted a healthier work environment, but my new supervisor, who can be kind and understanding, lacks the ability to maintain professional boundaries.


Occasionally, after Zoom meetings, she will call me to “go over” or “break down” the meeting we were just in. Am I crazy, or is this not OK? I’ve always thought it was important to respect people’s schedules, and if you have a certain topic you’d like to discuss, send them an email, or ask when they have time in the future to set up a meeting.

Phone calls are a common occurrence now, regarding a wide range of issues. Sometimes I’ll receive two to four in a day. Almost every single phone call could be an email. How do I politely ask my supervisor to stop calling me and texting me? I worry this request might not go over well, as remote working life has potentially blurred the communication lines.

Unfortunately, we don’t have Slack, or another messaging platform.

Logically, I know I have a valid stance to request that we only communicate via email unless it is an emergency, but I am struggling to find the words. I have some co-workers I do communicate with via text message, but those folks seem to have a better grasp on boundaries. I don’t know how to ask for something that would only apply to my boss, and fear insulting her.

A: You aren’t crazy, but you are perhaps bringing baggage from your previous position into your new job. There is nothing unreasonable, especially in a remote working environment, about your boss calling you after a meeting to debrief. This is very normal and happens all the time. It indicates that she values your input. I don’t really understand why you think this is “not OK,” and I don’t find your stance reasonable unless she’s unloading about her personal life or doing something inappropriate during these business calls.

You have every right to your communication preferences, and you can certainly try to find a tactful way to communicate to your boss that you prefer email over telephone conversations, but you do not get to dictate those preferences, I’m afraid. Definitely vent about this with your friends if it bothers you that much, but don’t make your personal distaste for this a professional problem.