So Your Maid Takes You To Court...
Monday, November 10 2008 @ 10:36 am EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
By DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - Hiring a maid or domestic employee to take care of the basic cooking and cleaning is one of the advantages of living in Panama. These relationships, in which the English speaking expat is the employer and the maid is the employee, often become a source of problems and conflict. The Panamanian legal system is definitely skewed toward helping the "little guy," and in most cases the American or Canadian employer has many times the money and resources of the maid they hired. As a general rule of thumb all maids are angels on the first day they start working and the devil with a red dress on the last day. There are very precise requirements in Panamanian law regarding what you have to pay your maid and when, and I'm not going to cover all of that again in this article. Rather, I'm only going to focus on what to do when your maid shows up with a notice that you have to appear at a hearing in the Ministry of Labor. (more)
Now What? You will pay your maid her last check and she will go away. Then a few days later she will come back to your front door, asking you to sign a "boleta" (ticket) that will specify a date, time, and location for a hearing. If in Panama City, these hearings are held in the offices of the Labor Ministry in the Plaza Edison building on Tumba Muerto. If you've never been through one of these things you will most certainly be somewhat confused by the process.
Only A Hearing: First of all, you should recognize and understand that this first hearing is nothing more than a sit down meeting between the official representatives of the Labor Ministry, the employer (you), and the former employee. The spirit and intent of this first meeting is to see if there is a way to work out the differences between the two sides. The former employee will make claims and statements and will request a sum of money. For the sake of argument, let's say the former maid says you owe her $500 bucks. But from your point of view you paid her everything she is entitled to under the law and you don't want to pay her another red cent. Besides, you fired her for stealing that watch anyway, so why should you pay anything.
No Legal Powers At All: Understand that in this first hearing, the official in the room does not have any power at all to make you pay a dime. This person is not a judge, but rather just an arbitrator or mediator between the two sides. The only way you can come out of that room having to pay anything is if you agree to it. You have every right in the world to simply refuse to pay anything and to suggest to the former employee that he he or she still has a problem, they can take it to court, and good luck with that. Get up and walk out, you've met your legal responsibility by showing up.
Been There, Done That: I had a maid do this exact thing to me. We treated her more than fairly, paid her well, gave her all kinds of extra gifts like clothing and toys for the kids, stuff like that. She started off great but then in the end there were some significant changes in her life, and basically the relationship we had with her went to hell. She started coming to work either late or not at all. In the end she stole something and I fired her. I paid her what she had coming (to the dime) and she left mad. C'ya.
Documentation is Everything: I suggest that you keep a little notebook where you annotate everything that happens between you and your maid. Every time you pay her, write it down in the book with the details of the date and time and how much you paid. Have her sign off on the entry. Annotate every goodwill gesture, gifts, extra pay or bonus money paid, everything. Basically, when the relationship turns south, and in the end most of them do, you will need this documentation if and when your former maid tries to rake you over the coals. One other thing - many times when the maid is on her last day and she's heading out the door, she will grab (or try to take) that same notebook where you've documented everything. I recommend you keep it "off site" like in your car or office - somewhere where the maid can't make off with it at the last minute.
To The Judge: There are special labor courts and judges who are established specifically to resolve these disputes between employers and employees. Remember this - that if the case goes to a judge then he can't order you to pay any more than you are required to pay by Panamanian law. Therefore, as an employer you have virtually no incentive to resolve the issue in the mediator's office unless the number is both fair and equitable, and you want to avoid having to attend any future hearings. But, if your former employee is flat-out lying and simply trying to take advantage of you, just tell them to "take it to court" and let the judge decide. These guys are good - they've heard every possible sob story before told by some of the world's most accomplished bullshit artists and they make quick and fair decisions. In short, you have nothing to fear in going into this kind of a courtroom as long as you have paid what you were supposed to pay and can prove it.
Still Undefeated: In my early years here in Panama I would go to the Ministry of Labor and would shell out the big bucks in the first hearing, simply because I was ignorant and didn't understand the system or how it works. Now, I just document the hell out of everything, pay my workers fairly and according to law, and then tell them "I'll see you in court" when they come back to try to screw over the gringo one last time. I've been through this exactly once and won, mostly because my documentation was impeccable and it was readily apparent to the judge that my former employee was lying through her teeth. Case dismissed - and I didn't have to pay another dime (because I was already paid up in full and according to law.)
A Balance Based on Fairness: Do everything you can to take care of your domestic help. Be fair and firm, and realize that many of them will take advantage of you if given half a chance. If you want to avoid these kinds of issues all together then don't hire a maid. If you do hire a maid (or anyone else for that matter) then you are already participating in the Panamanian economy as an employer, so you had better know what you've gotten yourself into.
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Please Add Your Comments: Please add to this discussion by commenting to this article below. We would love to hear your story, and how you dealt with it. Thanks.
Copyright 2008 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.