In Texas, employment is ‘at will’

Q. My son was hired as a mechanic’s assistant at $14 an hour. He told the supervisor that he had some experience, but he was willing to learn as he went along with the job. The supervisor was fine with this, and my son was given other duties as well. My son was very happy, always on time to work, apparently no problems. Last week he was called to the office and told they had hired a previous ex-employee to come back as the assistant. My son was given the option to go work in another job, but his pay would be reduced to $10 an hour. Is this legal?

A. You are not going to like this answer. Without an employment contract for a specific period of time or an agreement as to advance notice before termination, employment in Texas is “at will.” This means either the employee or employer may end the employment at any time, for any or no reason. For example, your son could have quit whenever he wanted with no notice, without any liability to the company. The employer, on the other hand, also had the right to terminate your son’s employment at any time. Its offer of another job at a lower hourly rate is simply that, a new offer of employment. Your son now may accept the new position, make a counter offer for a higher hourly rate, or reject the offer and look for another job.

Q. Can a debt collector call a person at work? I work as a receptionist for a company that often gets collection calls for an employee who works here. This person is unable to take the calls because he works out in the field. The calls are very harassing, are often rude and have even resorted to calling me names because of my refusal to take messages. What can be done to stop these calls?

A. Based on what you say, my opinion is the debt collector is violating federal law. First, simply calling the consumer at work is not prohibited until the consumer tells a debt collector he is not allowed to receive calls at work. You don’t say whether the employee told the collector to stop, so the mere act of calling may not be wrongful. Federal law, however, basically prohibits a debt collector from discussing the consumer’s debt with anyone except the consumer, harassing anyone, or even telling third parties he is calling about a debt. I suggest you request the employee to tell the collector to stop calling, and send a certified letter demanding the debt collector stop this conduct. The employee also should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He may even want to speak with a private attorney about a lawsuit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Q. My husband and I have been married for over 30 years. I am currently unemployed. Our marriage is going downhill, and I am afraid he will file for divorce. Is there a law requiring he pay me alimony?

A. At the time of your divorce, the court will divide the community property you have acquired during the marriage. Texas does not authorize alimony, but it does allow a court to order spousal support if you cannot support yourself on the property you have after the divorce. Because you have been married for more than 10 years, you are eligible for spousal support. Generally, it is awarded for a period of three or fewer years. I suggest you promptly speak with a family law attorney as soon as you believe your husband may file.

Q. If I owe creditors and they file a lawsuit against me, can they garnish or do anything with my 401k?

A. In Texas, certain property is “exempt” and cannot be taken by creditors, even if they sue. Included within the list of exempt property are retirement funds, such as a 401k. In other words, the creditor could not garnish the money in that account.

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