In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were few laws that protected workers in the United States. As time progressed, labor unions, the federal government, and the Supreme Court demanded, passed and upheld labor laws to end employee exploitation.
Still, people who don’t know their rights can be taken advantage of. In this chapter, we’ll discuss:
- Essential employee rights in the workplace
- Federal laws that protect workers
- How employees can fight for their rights if violated
Laws that protect U.S. employees at work
Employee rights are the legal protections given to workers in their workplaces. These rights are governed by federal, state, and local laws, as well as by contracts between employers and employees.
There are many different employee rights, but some of the most well-known include the right to:
- A safe workplace
- Fair compensation
- Join a union or take part in other types of collective bargaining with your employer
- Freedom from workplace discrimination
- Reasonable access to company information that affects you
These rights may seem like common sense, but they weren’t always guaranteed. In the past, employers could get away with all sorts of exploitation, including paying workers minuscule wages, exposing them to dangerous conditions, and firing them without cause.
Now, employee rights are protected at the federal and state level, enforced by public policy and the contract they sign with their employers.
However, limitations to the employment-at-will doctrine (the premise that employees can choose where they work) generally fall into three categories: statutory rights, contractual rights, and public policy exceptions.
- Statutory rights are created by federal and state legislatures. The best-known statutory rights for employees come from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Others include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
- Contractual rights most commonly arise from employment contracts, which can be either written or oral. An employment contract sets forth the terms and conditions of employment, including such things as job duties, compensation, and the length of employment. An employment contract can also include a clause that says the employee can only be fired for “cause,” which means the employee must have done something wrong in order to be legally terminated.
- Public policy exceptions are based on the notion that there are certain public policies that take precedence over an employer’s right to fire an employee. For example, it is against public policy to fire an employee for reporting illegal activity by the employer, because doing so would discourage employees from coming forward with information about wrongdoing. Other public policy exceptions include firing an employee for taking jury duty, military leave, or for refusing to commit an illegal act.
If any of these rights are violated, you can hire a labor law lawyer to help you understand your legal options and take action if necessary.
Workers’ rights laws: the basics
These are state or federal workers’ rights laws employees should familiarize themselves with.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The law also applies to hiring practices, promotions, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
The ADEA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against employees who are 40 years of age or older. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who complain of discrimination.
Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008
GINA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of genetic information. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire an employee because of a family history of genetic diseases.
Workplace law and statutory protections: how do I fight for my rights at work?
If you believe that your employer has violated your rights under any of the laws mentioned above, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state’s fair employment practices agency.
In most situations, you’ll need to show that you were discriminated against because of your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, or genetic information. You’ll also need to show that the discrimination resulted in you being treated differently than other employees.
Here are some important workplace protection organizations you may want to contact:
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a federal agency that regulates workplace safety. If you believe your employer has violated your right to a safe workplace, you can file a complaint with OSHA.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
The National Labor Relations Board is a federal agency that protects the rights of employees to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. If you believe your employer has violated these rights, you can file a charge with the NLRB.
Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA)
The Fair Labor and Standards Act is a federal law that regulates minimum wage, child labor, and overtime pay. If you believe your employer has violated your rights under the FLSA, you can file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor.
Public policy protection for workers: what should you not say to HR?
In addition to the laws mentioned above, there are also public policy protections for workers. Public policy is a principle that holds that it is in the public interest for people to be able to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.
For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for filing a complaint with OSHA or the EEOC. They also can’t fire whistleblowers if human rights are being violated.
If your rights are being violated, you should immediately file a claim and hire a lawyer to assist you. Anything you tell the HR department can be used against you later. Therefore, it’s best to consult with a lawyer who knows.
Filing a claim
Anyone that feels their employment rights have been violated can submit a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
The EEOC is a federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination. To submit a claim, you’ll need to follow these steps:
- Gather information about the alleged discrimination. This can include witness statements, performance reviews, email exchanges, and even an employee handbook.
- File a charge of discrimination. You can do this online, by mail, or in person at an EEOC office.
- The EEOC will investigate your claim and determine whether there is enough evidence to support it.
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