By the Bais Hora'ah
I scheduled a carpenter to come to my house to build some cabinets and shelves, and we agreed on a price. Before the scheduled date I found a handyman who charged less. I forgot to contact the first carpenter to cancel and he came on the scheduled date and wants to be paid in full what I was going to pay him.
Q: Am I obligated to pay his claim? Would there be a difference if I had called in advance and canceled?
A: Generally, canceling a scheduled service call involves the issue of mechusar amanah — not keeping one’s word. In a circumstance in which the worker assumes that he will perform the scheduled job, the homeowner violates the prohibition of mechusar amanah. The one exception is if circumstances change, e.g., if someone who charges less has an unexpected opening, in which case, according to some Poskim, one may cancel the scheduled worker (C.M. 204:11). When canceling violates the prohibition of mechusar amanah, one must appease the worker for canceling (Kesef Hakodashim). Even when mechusar amanah is not applicable, the worker may bear resentment (tar’omes) toward the homeowner for canceling (C.M. 333:1, Sma 333:1).
Whether the homeowner is liable for the cancellation and what amount he must pay is subject to numerous factors. We will first address the question that arises when the homeowner cancels after the worker started the job or even just traveled to the work site.
If the carpenter can find another job (and could not have done both jobs simultaneously [Nesivos 333:7]), the homeowner is not liable, unless the second job is worth less, in which case the homeowner would have to pay the difference (C.M. 333:2). If the second job does not involve the same exertion as the first job, the homeowner reduces the amount he owes the carpenter in proportion to the decreased exertion (Ketzos 333:4).
If the carpenter could have done both jobs, even if the homeowner had not canceled, or if the carpenter cannot find alternative employment, the homeowner must pay the carpenter the agreed amount (Nesivos ad loc.). The reason for this is that the commencement of a job is considered a kinyan for the employment agreement (see Nachal Yitzchak 39:17 for an explanation). Furthermore, even simply traveling to the work site is considered a kinyan for this purpose, and thus the homeowner is contractually obligated to pay the agreed-upon remuneration (see Avnei Nezer, C.M. 52, which seems to limit the kinyan of traveling to an employee who is paid for traveling time; however, others reject this distinction).
Generally the homeowner’s obligation is to pay the worker k’poel batel — the amount of an out-of-work employee (Ulam Hamishpat 335:1, cf. Ketzos 316:1). This amount is calculated by determining how much the repairman/worker would be willing to accept to not have to work. A standard amount is half of the anticipated salary (Taz 333:1, Maharsham 2:207), but each situation must be considered independently (Mishpat Shalom).
Next week, iy”H, we will discuss whether there is any responsibility if one cancels in advance.