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posted: 10/14/2012 7:44 AM

Work Advice: If you played, you should get paid

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Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q: I was laid off and had been looking for work for 10 months. Finally, through a friend, I was offered a low-paying job at a small business. The owner asked me to stay for a year but said she'd understand if I left sooner than that for my "dream job." I went to work without a contract.

Well, as soon as I started, I began getting calls from positions I'd applied for months earlier. I turned down interview requests. Then, on Wednesday of my third week at work, I received an offer from my actual dream job, which I'd interviewed for six weeks earlier. In that interview, I had said I could start ASAP, so I didn't want to tell them I'd taken a survival job.

I gave notice the next day that Friday would be my last day at the small business, and the owner was understandably angry. I felt guilty but couldn't give up a career position for a job with no future. Also, my family's finances were in bad shape, so I felt guilty about potentially risking the dream job by asking to postpone my start date.

Does the business owner still need to pay me? I was paid at the end of my first week, and the next pay period ended on my last day. I really don't know whether I deserve to be paid for those two weeks.

Q: Your guilt and the boss' anger aside, here's the strictly legal perspective: You worked; you get paid. Just be aware that your lack of a contract could be a problem if the boss decides to make it hard to collect that paycheck.

Now consider the karmic perspective: If DreamCo took six weeks to decide to offer you the job, surely it could have granted you some time to tie up loose ends. It would have been perfectly reasonable to ask if you could give your short-term boss more notice -- ideally the standard two weeks. Sticking around longer would have been a good-faith gesture to the owner and a show of respect to the friend who helped you land that much-needed interim job, especially if he or she made a glowing referral that got you in the door.

All that said, I realize I'm being easier on you than I was on the college student in a recent 10 column, who accepted and then reneged on an internship offer. That's because (1) this is your livelihood and family support, not just a summer gig; and (2) in the earlier column, I suggested that folks should have a once-in-a-lifetime "get out of job free" card. It's made for situations such as yours.

Thanks to Tracy Gonos, of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C.

• Karla Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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