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I have worked for the same company for a little over 9 years. I have to make it to the 10 year mark to be vested in their pension plan. If I don't make it to year 10, I get absolutely nothing. I have always worked locally, own a house close by, and my family lives with me.

On year number 9, I am told that I will have to travel across the country and remain there for 6 months, which I am really not keen on doing. I simply don't want to be away from my family for that long, and it's not possible for them to come with me due to their own jobs.

When I interviewed for the job, there was never any verbal conversations about the possibility of an extended relocation, as I would have walked away. I can't remember exactly how the wording was phrased on the contract I signed, but if there was anything it was a generic sounding "do whatever it takes to get the job done" and not specifically "expected to travel for extended periods." No other coworker I've worked with has had to do anything similar. The most I have seen is someone being away for a week of travel, and then having several follow up weeks at home before having to return, if they returned at all. I feel like I have been targeted for this task specifically because I am so close to being vested in the pension, and the project director has been very adamant about not letting me work on other projects, even though I have expressed interest in it.

I'm not sure what path I should choose: Put my foot down and refuse to go, possibility losing my job and 9 years of pension progress? Suck it up and just go, wishing my family the best? Try to plead for a more reasonable task? Could this be considered a legal issue, holding my pension hostage or abuse of power?

I think one interesting spin on this whole situation is that this job is not with a private company, but rather a university, so there's a bit more laws and bureaucratic red tape that they'd have to cross in order to fire me. But for all I know refusing to perform this travel may very well make it very easy for them to fire me.

This is in USA.

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    Get a lawyer? There is nothing we can do for you here. – nvoigt Nov 30 '18 at 16:57
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    Also worth asking; are you part of any union, or have some officer at your workplace that is able to advise you (specifically, not HR - but somebody whose job it is to represent you)? – Bilkokuya Nov 30 '18 at 16:58
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    In addition to the options you state, there is also the option of negotiating regular time with your family. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 30 '18 at 17:03
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    So they will not cover travel cost to come back home? They should let you come home every other week. – paparazzo Nov 30 '18 at 17:50
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    look up "constructive dismissal", compare to your situation, have a quick chat with a lawyer, then meet your boss for a "how can we prevent this turning into a lawsuit, because I'm not doing that" meeting. – Kate Gregory Nov 30 '18 at 18:09
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If your university is large enough, there may be other opportunities within the university. The goal would be to find a new position that would count as a transfer, not causing an employment gap for pension computation.

Start with any posted jobs at the university, but don't stop there. Many opportunities might not be posted: a transfer is much easier than a new hire, and a manager might be quite willing to snap up a 9-year veteran even without a particular job opening.

Here's how to do it:

  • Quietly investigate other departments/teams/programs that might be aligned with your skills
  • Figure out if you know anyone in those other teams, and confidentially get a read on the management and financial situation in the team: are they hiring, do they have more money than time, is the manager good, can the manager be trusted, etc.
  • Approach the potential new manager and express that you are considering making a change, and that this team is doing work that you are interested in and that you think you could contribute to. Be sure to ask them to keep this confidential as your current manager is not aware that you are looking.
  • You will be an attractive candidate because you are already there, can come up to speed quickly, have a 9-year track record, and have a really good non-performance reason to make a change.
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  • This will only work if the pension issue is specific to the department and NOT the entire university. That would be unlikely though: chances are the pension plan is the same of all employees in the university and that the "policy" of "get rid of nine year employees" is university wide. The individual department has nothing to gain by saving on pension, so chances are this is driven by the university as a whole – Hilmar Dec 1 '18 at 1:43
  • @Hilmar if there were a university-wide policy on the matter, then the OP wouldn't have said "No other coworker I've worked with has had to do anything similar." - if would have come up before, in the OP's 9 years for work. – Ben Barden Feb 21 at 20:06
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I'm not sure what path I should choose: Put my foot down and refuse to go, possibility losing my job and 9 years of pension progress? Suck it up and just go, wishing my family the best? Try to plead for a more reasonable task?

You have a difficult decision to make here.

If it were me, I'd be sure to have a long talk with my boss first (something you didn't mention in your question).

I'd talk about why I didn't want to do this, how difficult it would be for my family, and if it were possible to accommodate the company's needs some other way. Then, based on the response, I'd make the tough decision.

I have walked away from lucrative jobs in the past when I was required to be away from my family for too long. For me that tradoff was worthwhile. You need to decide if its worthwhile to you or not.

Could this be considered a legal issue, holding my pension hostage or abuse of power?

Unless you think is specifically being done to you in order to force you to sacrifice your pension, I doubt you'll have any legal recourse. But if you really want a useful answer, you need to talk with your lawyer.

Since you work for a university, you may be in a union. You should consult your union rep in that case. Otherwise, most universities have an ombudsman. You may be well advised to check in with their office to see if they can help.

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In addition to Peter's excellent answer, I'd suggest that you find out where you stand.

Get copies of University policies on travel, extended relocation, and termination from HR. Assemble what you've signed as much as you can. You can probably find a lawyer for a not-too-expensive short consultation through your local bar association. Bring what you've got to the lawyer, and be sure to mention if you suspect illegal discrimination, and if so on what ground. (It sounds like your treatment is unusual. Do you have a reasonable number of vested colleagues?)

Right now, you don't know what your options are, and the likely consequences.

It's clear that the project director is trying to get rid of you, so the project director is your enemy. HR isn't your friend, but may be your ally if there's a reasonable prospect of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Who's above your project director? Can you talk to that person or a member of that committee? There's no guarantee it will get you anywhere, but you won't know unless you try.

And, while you're doing this, see if you can find something elsewhere in the system as Peter suggested.

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It's entirely possible that you're being asked to do this unpleasant thing because you're about to be vested in your pension. And they hope that you'll leave in a huff and not have to be paid for later. This is pretty standard behavior for a US employer (although by no means the only place, France is even worse for instance).

If I were you I would grit my teeth and hang on long enough to get the pension, no matter what's involved, because the pension is usually the only real benefit of a university job. But you can try to make it as inconvenient as possible for them as well. Not only should they be paying for your housing while you're there, and a per diem for expenses, but they should also be paying for regular travel to see your family, like at least every other weekend, preferably every weekend. Make sure you negotiate these benefits strenuously, and don't make any effort to save them money. But if you can negotiate a flat rate for expenses you might be able to save enough to get even more travel with your family, and you should of course get airline miles in your name for all those trips, that you can use for extra travel as well.

And I second everybody else's advice to at least consult with an employment lawyer, and get ready documentation for an age-discrimination case. The sooner you talk to them and the better your eventual case will be, at least good enough to be able to subtly hint about it if it comes to that.

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