by R. Daniel Mann
Question: I am self-employed in a service providing field. The Cohens hired me two months in advance for a block of time at high season. I told them I needed to know exactly when I was needed, and as a result I did not put out the word I was available for that time. Soon before I was supposed to start working, they told me they were cutting back to a fraction of the time. Do I have a financial claim against them? While a learned person told me I can get two thirds of the projected salary, I want to hear from a Rav who adjudicates financial matters.
Answer: Members of our beit din are usually careful not to give advice to one side or give the impression we agree with his claims without hearing the other side. However, I believe you sincerely want to know if it is appropriate to make a claim and are not asking to gain an advantage. Therefore, I will give you some perspective to help you decide how to resolve your issues with the Cohens.
One who commits to hire a worker is bound financially not to cancel (or cut back, which is equivalent) the work order, only if there was an act that finalized (kinyan) the hiring. Beginning of work, starting with traveling to the job, is a special kinyan-equivalent for workers (Bava Metzia 76b). However, if the “employer” wants to back out between the commitment and the beginning of the work, the “worker” has no monetary claim, but only a moral complaint (taromet) (see ibid. 75b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 333:1).
Rishonim ask that the employer should be obligated because he caused the worker the damage of a lost employment opportunity. Two distinctions are made between cases where the worker has claims and when he does not. 1) Can the worker find work after being informed? (Tosafot, Bava Metzia 76b); 2) Would he have found a different job originally if the employer did not hire him? (see Maggid Mishneh, Sechirut 9:4). The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 2) rules that only when both factors are in the worker’s favor is he entitled to compensation for the loss. You imply that you did not have enough warning to find an alternative job (we do not know if the Cohen’s agree). You imply that you did not turn down work offers because of the Cohens, but that your chances to find other jobs would have been much greater if you had known you needed work and “put out the word.”
There is little discussion about cases where the extent to which the work order was responsible for not receiving other work is unclear. One also should consider that many say that the reneging employer is not legally culpable because he is not damaging but indirectly preventing profit (see K’tzot Hachoshen 333:2). Some say obligation before kinyan is only a Rabbinic obligation to help workers or an assumption of tacit agreement (see Netivot Hamishpat 333:3). Putting everything together, unless you demonstrate convincingly that the Cohens’ actions “robbed you” of otherwise expected employment, it is hard to extract money in beit din.
Your moral grounds are much stronger. We mentioned the idea of taromet. The extent of the moral complaint is impacted by the reason the Cohens committed themselves and changed their minds. Was there a sudden change in their needs? Was it beyond their control? Could they have informed you earlier?
The idea of paying two thirds is due to the fact that people would take a cut in salary to receive vacation (Bava Metzia 76b). If the alternative job you would likely have found is for less pay than the Cohens’ job, you would again have to reduce your claim.
It sounds (albeit without hearing the Cohens) that it would be mentchlach for them to pay you an appropriate amount for harming your employment situation by their actions, but it is hard to say how much. It is not clear if and how much you could demand. Considering the many types of “prices” of litigation (including endangering your professional reputation), I urge you to consider the possibility that dropping the matter or raising your complaint pleasantly (perhaps presenting our discussion could help) serves you better.