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Law

What Are Employee Rights? An In-Depth Guide

When you’re working a 9-to-5 with an overpaid, overinvolved manager that has nowhere he’d rather be than hovering over someone’s shoulder, it’s easy to feel like you have no rights. When requests for time off that you put in weeks in advance get mysteriously denied the night before, you may feel like you have no voice.

When your job abuses the staff or refuses to allow for a work-life balance, it’s easy to get discouraged. However, you don’t have to put up with this treatment.

You, as a worker, have rights in this country. What are employee rights? How can you react if yours are being violated? Here’s what you need to know.

Every Employee Has the Right to Get Paid for Their Work

This should go without saying. At least, one would think. Every employee that steps into a place of work deserves to receive payment for the work that they have done.

Unless they receive said wages in lump sums as commissions or work a salaried position, this usually gets determined by an hourly rate.

Employers Must Pay Minimum Wage on Hourly Jobs

When you get hired for an hourly position, your employers must pay you the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr at the very least. However, this is circumvented to a certain extent when you work a job that relies on tips.

In tipped positions, that minimum wage can drop as low as $2.13 per hour. If you make less than the federal minimum wage in tips, then you will receive compensation to equal that.

You Have the Right to Get Paid on a Schedule

Many states have laws on the book to guarantee that you get paid on a regular schedule. They will require businesses to pay their workers on a weekly, bi-weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly basis. If your employer refuses to pay you on time, you have the right to file suit and get the wages you are owed.

You Have the Right to Organize

One of the most flagrant abuses of workers’ rights in recent years is the way that large corporations try to come down on union efforts. However, under the National Labor Relations Act, you have the right to gather and organize with your coworkers to demand fair treatment and wages.

This also means that your employer cannot fire you for comparing wages with another employee of similar rank and experience. Doing so is against the law.

As an Employee, You Can Speak Out Against Abuse

Many corporations like to preach that they have a safety-minded culture, or that they treat their employees “like a family” or “like a team”. However, as with all dysfunctional families, the moment workers dare to speak out against abuses going on within the system, they find themselves on the outs.

Whether this takes place through official sanctions, firings, or a subtle loss of projects and hours depends on the company involved. However, you have the right to speak out against flagrant abuse against both staff and clientele.

Whistleblower Protection Laws Exist

Employment law guarantees that any company that fires you after you blow the whistle on their dangerous, abusive, or unethical practices will be in serious legal hot water. However, many of the same laws that protect whistleblowers also protect you from retaliatory mistreatment or job loss.

For instance, let’s say that you get injured on the job and file for workers’ compensation. Or that you spot blatant discrimination going on, and file a report above your boss’s head. If your employer then fires you or makes it their personal mission to make your work life a living nightmare, they are breaking the law.

No Employee Should Face Discrimination

It’s easy to think (or hope) that we’ve left all the ugliness of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination behind us. However, despite society’s best efforts, people still face all sorts of prejudice in their workplaces. This can range from overt harassment and losing out on promotions to subtler aggressions that make the workplace a hostile environment.

If you belong to a protected class and experience discrimination, you have every right to reach out to an employment lawyer for aid.

What Counts as a Protected Class?

So, what exactly is a protected class? The definition has expanded in recent years, so let’s break it down. The protected classes that will have legal recourse to retaliate in cases of discrimination include:

  • Race or ethnicity
  • Color
  • Religious creed
  • Veteran status
  • Sex/gender (including sexual orientation and gender identity)
  • Ancestry or nation of origin
  • Disability, physical or mental, and
  • Citizenship

Should you discover your employer engaged in overt discrimination against anyone in these classes, you have a right to reach out and blow the whistle on them. If you see something, say something, and make your workplace a safer and more inclusive environment.

Employees Are Entitled to Reasonable Accommodations

On the topic of both religion and ableism, it’s important to note that you have the right to reasonable accommodations. That means that, should you put in the request, your employer must attempt, to the best of their ability, to accommodate your disability or your sincerely held religious beliefs.

Sadly, the latter of the two types of accommodations faced some controversy (and abuse) during the coronavirus pandemic. However, the same laws that allowed people to flaunt public health restrictions can also allow a Muslim employee to wear a headscarf in accordance with their own religious beliefs.

You Don’t Have to Disclose Your Disability Before Hiring to Receive Accommodation

One important thing to note: If the accommodation you wish to request is due to a disability, you do not have to disclose that disability prior to your hiring. Many people facing mental or physical disabilities try to avoid disclosure if it isn’t relevant to the job’s duties, but may still require special adjustments.

Why? Well, even if it’s not supposed to happen, many people with disabilities either can’t land or get let go from jobs when they disclose their status.

You don’t have to tell an employer about your disability at hiring. As long as the accommodation in question won’t hamstring the company’s operations (which most won’t), you can make your request at any time.

Your Employer Must Allow Breaks

The right to take a break for rest or nourishment is one of the most flagrantly disregarded workers’ rights on the books. However, by state law, once you pass a certain number of hours, your employer must allow you a certain amount of time for rest breaks, a lunch break, or both.

You’ll have to check with your state’s labor laws to see how much work you must complete in order to receive your breaks. However, some employers try to find sneaky ways to subvert those laws for their own ends.

They Must Pay You If You Work Through Lunch

Has your boss ever asked you to eat your lunch on the clock and keep working on a project for them? If so, and if they automatically deduct money from your paycheck as if you clocked out, they’re violating the law. When you work through the lunch break to which you’re entitled, your boss has to pay you for that time. End of.

Most States Require Lunch Breaks After 4 Hours

Speaking of lunch breaks, most states will require a minimum of 30 minutes of time for an employee to eat lunch after 4 hours worked. When an employer really doesn’t want to give their people a lunch break, they’ll schedule part-time workers for just shy of 4 hours to avoid that pesky requirement. While not technically illegal, it’s immoral and should get called out.

However, if you work a shift over 4 hours and never receive your lunch break, it’s time to make some phone calls.

You Have the Right to a Safe Workplace

Once again, this should seem like an obvious point. However, when you consider that a vast majority of employment law violations come from safety hazards, it’s clear that the point needs re-stating. If your employer creates an unsafe workspace due to lax regard for safety regulations and federal requirements, do not hesitate to contact OSHA.

What Can You Do If Your Employee Rights Are Violated?

Now that you know what your rights are, you may be wondering what you can do if your employer decides to infringe upon them anyway. The options you have include, but are not limited to:

  • Going above your boss’s head to file a report
  • Lawyering up, especially if you’ve been terminated
  • Filing a complaint with local labor boards
  • Reaching out to your union, if you have one

For some, even the threat of legal action or governmental involvement will get them to comply with the law. In stubborn cases, however, prepare for a lengthy legal battle.

What Are Employee Rights? Let’s Review

So, what are employee rights? In essence, they are the protections and privileges you are afforded by the nature of being a worker in the United States. While workers’ rights vary from state to state, it’s important to stay apprised so that your employer can’t exploit you.

If you’d like to learn more about your legal protections in the workplace, check out the Business section of our blog for more content like this.

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