What Rights Do I Have as an Employee?

Employees are protected under various elements of national employment law, which covers rights and obligations between employees and their employers. These laws can help guarantee employee rights like:

  • The right to minimum wage;
  • Protection against discrimination and harassment;
  • Privacy related to medical and genetic information;
  • Overtime pay and paid time off;
  • Wrongful termination.

An employee needs to understand and know these rights to ensure they are being protected. Understanding these rights also plays a major role in setting up healthy and safe workplaces. However, employees and employers should be aware that employee rights can differ from state to state and even business to business. For instance, some states are right-to-work states, which means the employer could terminate the employee for any reason at any time. Since there are many discrepancies on this topic, below you can find the most common rights employees have and how they should function. 

Discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace is when an employer takes action against an employee that can affect their ability to obtain employment, a promotion, or an increase in wages. There are many types of discrimination subject to federal legal protection, including:

  • Racial and color discrimination: This discrimination is based on a person’s race (or associated race) or their skin color. It could also include being discriminated against for the association with someone of a certain race or color. 
  • Religious discrimination: Although religion in the workplace may be a taboo subject, employers cannot discriminate against an employee because of their religious beliefs. This also includes ethical and moral beliefs. 
  • National origin discrimination: This type of discrimination happens when someone is denied equal opportunity employment because they are from a different country, they have a different accent, or they have a different ethnicity.
  • Sex discrimination: Employers are not allowed to deny work opportunities based on people’s sex or gender. This can include women who are pregnant. 
  • Military status discrimination: Businesses are not allowed to discriminate against job applicants or employees because of their past, present, or future military obligations. 

If you find that you have been a victim of discrimination, you should first tell your employer that you are taking these acts seriously and be sure to keep documentation.

Pay

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the minimum wage and overtime pay standards. According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour. However, some states provide wages higher than the federal minimum; in these cases, employers must comply with both state and federal laws. Additionally, employees who work overtime should be paid no less than one and a half times the regular pay rate. It is important to note that there are exemptions to this right, including:

  • Making a salary that is at least twice the minimum wage;
  • Unlicensed or uncertified professional employees;
  • Managerial or executive employees;
  • Union employees;
  • Industry-specific employees. 

To understand what you are being paid for, employee pay stubs are required to list any deductions taken from your pay. These can include:

  • Medical and dental benefits;
  • 401(k) retirement;
  • Life insurance;
  • Federal and state income tax;
  • FICA taxes.

Your pay stub should also show your overtime pay. If you discover missing overtime pay or have any questions about your pay, contact your employer or HR representative right away. 

Breaks and Working Hours

The FLSA does not define work hours; it does specify that nonexempt employees that work more than 40 hours a week must be paid overtime. Typically, work hours include any work that is “suffered or permitted,” or in other words, required. Often employees will work off the clock to appease employers. This can happen in several different ways, including taking a report home to finish or running work-related errands before arriving for work. These actions are deemed illegal by the FLSA because employees are not being compensated for them. 

Furthermore, federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks, although some states have laws mandating certain types of breaks. If an employer provides breaks, they must be paid if:

  • The breaks last less than 20 minutes;
  • The state requires paid rest breaks;
  • The employee must work through the break.  

Work break laws vary from state to state, including meals and rest times. In the states that require breaks, employees are allotted one meal break if they work for more than five consecutive hours. Many companies will also provide small, paid resting breaks that last no longer than 20 minutes for every four hours worked. Employees that feel they do not have adequate breaks should look up their state requirements. 

Protection Under Health and Safety Protocols

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are required to provide a safe workplace that deters employees from the experience of workplace injury. OSHA provides safety standards that employers must abide by, including:

  • Providing a workplace free from serious recognized hazards;
  • Posting OSHA job safety notices in the workplace;
  • Keeping records of all injuries, deaths, and exposure to a hazardous material;
  • Providing safety training;
  • Making sure employees have safe tools and equipment.

Additionally, workplaces must provide first-aid equipment, clean bathrooms, and drinking water, according to the OSHA sanitation standard. If an employee is injured at work, there are federal and state laws that can help protect them. Workplace injuries can include:

  • Slip and fall accidents;
  • Occupational illnesses;
  • Repetitive motion injuries;
  • Psychological harm.

One of these rights is the right to disability benefits like workers’ compensation. This employee benefit allows employees to receive a percentage of their earned wages while they cannot work for both short and long-term periods, as well as provides medical care coverage for the relevant conditions or injuries. 

Leave and Time-Off

The FLSA does not require employers to provide time-off, including vacation time, sick leave, or holiday leave. Such benefits are often an agreement between the employee and the employer except for leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA provides workers with 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year in which the health benefits are maintained. Other types of leaves that are required by law include:

  • Military leave;
  • Voting leave;
  • Jury duty leave;
  • Religious observance. 

If an employee works part-time, they may not be eligible for the voluntary leaves by their employers. Employees should read their benefits package carefully when applying for jobs. 

Whistleblowers

“Whistleblowers” are people who report evidence of wrongdoing. Employers may act in retaliation because of the employee’s actions, which is against the whistleblower laws enforced by OSHA. According to OSHA, retaliation can take many forms:

  • Blacklisting;
  • Demoting;
  • Denying overtime or promotion;
  • Disciplining;
  • Denying benefits;
  • Failing to hire or rehire;
  • Firing or laying off;
  • Intimidation;
  • Making threats;
  • Reducing pay or hours;
  • Suspension.

Whistleblowers are protected to try to maintain company transparency and accountability. Those that think they have been retaliated against for whistleblowing acts must file a complaint with OSHA. 

How to Address Employee Rights Violations

While you may want to take immediate action if your rights are violated, it’s important to remember that these procedures take time, patience, and evidence. To address employee rights violations, consider the following steps:

  • Gather documentation: This can include but is not limited to, paystubs, phone records, emails, and texts. You will need to make sure you have copies of these documents to send to your HR representative.
  • Tell your employer: By telling them, you could give your employer the chance to resolve the problem right away. If they do not, seeking a reasonable solution first will strengthen your case. 
  • File a claim: You can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or OSHA. Both agencies will investigate your claim and determine the next actionable course. It may be worthwhile to hire a lawyer to help navigate these processes. 

Employees have rights in the workplace to ensure they have a safe, healthy, and productive work environment. By understanding your rights, you can ensure your workplace is fair for you and your coworkers.

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