You call a limousine company Monday night to pick you up Tuesday morning at 6:30 a.m. to take you to the airport so that you can catch a 9:30 a.m. flight. The price quoted is $70. It is now 7:30 a.m. Monday morning and the dispatcher apologizes but he has no cab available to take you to the airport. So you hail a yellow cab, which winds its way through rush hour and gets you to the airport on time but it now cost you $120. Can you charge the limousine company the extra $50 you had to put out?
You entered into an employment contract with your employer for a one-year term, but after three months you decide you do not like the job and you want to leave. Your employer says you must honor your contract and stay another six months. Can you leave?
You hire a removal service to hoist your new refrigerator up ten flights of stairs to your apartment. When the removal man reaches the fifth floor, he lets the fridge down on the landing, looks at his watch, and tells you he has to rush to another job. You now have to hire another removal company to finish the job, but it costs you more then it would have had the first removal person finished the job. What are your rights?
There are two competing halachic policies underlying all of these situations. One is the policy against slavery – that is to say, unless people willingly sell themselves into slavery, their bodies belong to themselves and cannot be commandeered for other peoples’ benefit. Or as the Torah puts it, “The Children of Israel are my servants,” not the servants of men.
No person can force another to work against his or her will. Accordingly, the rule is that poel yachol lachzor bo afeelu becheitzi hayom – a worker can quit any time even in the middle of the job.
But there is another halachic policy: Commitments must be honored and promises must be kept.
The halachic approach navigates between these competing policies.
In so doing, the halacha distinguishes between a poel and a kablan. A poel is a worker hired for a specific period of time to perform whatever task the employer directs him to do during that time. The relationship between the employer and the poel terminates when the time is over. A kablan is a worker that is hired to perform a specific task. The relationship between the kablan and the employer is terminated when the task is performed. Because the situation of the worker, whose time is not his own, is more akin to slavery than the situation of the kablan, who is free to decide when and under what conditions he will work, the halacha is more protective of the poel than of the kablan.
Accordingly, although both the kablan and the poel can quit in the middle of the job, the consequences of quitting are severer for the kablan than for the poel. If the poel quits a $100 job in the middle, the employer must pay him $50 for half the work even if the cost of labor has increased in the interim and it now costs the employer an additional $80 to complete the job. If a kablan quits a $100 job in the middle and the cost of labor has increased in the interim, the employer need only pay him $20 for half the work and then pay $80 to a new kablan to finish the job.
The freedom to quit a job in the middle, like the exercise of all freedom, may need to be restrained to the extent that it hurts innocent people. Accordingly, the halacha prohibits both a poel and a kablan from quitting the job if this will cause the employer a davar ha’aved, a financial loss (for example, damage resulting from refusal to complete the carriage of perishable goods. Absent death or a medical emergency of the worker or a member of his family, the kablan and poel must complete the job. If they refuse, the employer must try to replace them with labor that costs the same. If he cannot, he may hire more expensive labor, complete the job in a timely manner, and charge the quitters with the extra amount expended to get the job done.
Because a poel is being paid for his time, he must be very diligent not to waste time on the job. Although customary lunch time out is permitted, it should not be misused. Accordingly, the halacha exempts workers who eat together on company time from waiting on each other for mezuman.
It is equally forbidden to engage in activities outside working hours, which would exhaust one for the next day’s work and make one less efficient on the job. Neither may liberties be taken with an employer’s property. The relevant question one needs to ask oneself is if the employer were watching, would I refrain from using the object or would I continue to do so unimpeded?
Respect in the workplace must be mutual. Accordingly the Torah forbids an employer to withhold wages that are due to and have been demanded by the employee. Even in tight cash flow circumstances, the employer should consider arranging lines of credit or the sale of assets to take care of his employees first.