The civil rights of U.S. workers are protected by several important laws. Understanding your rights under these laws can help you deal with workplace problems and ensure you are treated fairly. As always, knowledge is power. When you are familiar with employment and labor regulations, you are less likely to accept inappropriate treatment at work, such as discrimination, harassment, and other abuses.
EMPLOYMENT STANDARDS UPHELD
The United States is part of an International Labour Organization (ILO) that recognizes several fundamental employment principles.
- Abolition of child labor and forced or compulsory labor
- Equal opportunity, with elimination of discrimination in the workplace
- Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
- Promotion of occupational safety and health standards
- Importance of fair wage and hour standards.
In the U.S., key laws protecting employees are enforced by the Department of Labor (DOL), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Each state and U.S.-owned territory has an accessible labor department office, and there are a number of regional EEOC and OSHA locations designed to cover all areas.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY RIGHTS AND THE ROLE OF THE EEOC
With a goal of promoting equality in the workplace, the EEOC specifically enforces federal laws pertaining to discrimination.
Anti-discrimination laws apply to the hiring process as well as to employer practices regarding promotions, perks, training, wages, benefits, and termination. Employers with 15 or more workers, employment agencies, and labor unions answer to the EEOC, as well as to civil court judges.
The laws enforced by the EEOC include:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII)
This landmark 1964 law made it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. Discrimination aimed at an employee because of the protected status of his or her family member is also illegal.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
An amendment to Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act added pregnancy and childbirth to the list of protections. An employer cannot legally discriminate against a worker because she is pregnant or because of any medical condition related to her pregnancy or the birth of a child.
The Equal Pay Act (EPA)
In 1963, the EPA made it unlawful to pay different wages to male and female employees performing equal work in the same office. Equal pay under the law includes all forms of compensation, including bonuses and employment benefits.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
This 1967 age discrimination law protects workers 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination due to their date of birth. Employers with 20 or more workers must not discriminate on the basis of age during the hiring and firing process or for provision of employment privileges.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA outlaws discrimination based upon disability. The 1990 law requires employers to reasonably accommodate known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified applicant or employee. (Exceptions are allowed if accommodations impose undue hardship on the business operation.)
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act
As of 2009, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an applicant or employee because of genetic information. This pertains to data obtained from genetic testing that reveals a disease, disorder, or medical condition affecting the employee or family member.
FREEDOM FROM HARASSMENT, RETALIATION, AND WRONGFUL TERMINATION
Workplace discrimination based on race, religion, gender, age, or health can take many forms.
Often, workplace discrimination involves ongoing harassment, including inappropriate comments, undue criticism, and other adverse acts. Harassment can come from a supervisor, coworker, or even clients or customers. Sexual harassment, including unwanted romantic advances or physical touching, is a form of gender discrimination and is prohibited under Title VII.
Anti-discrimination laws specifically prohibit employers from retaliating against a worker who complains about discriminatory practices. If you file a formal claim or pursue litigation against your employer, Title VII makes it illegal for the business to retaliate by harassing, demoting, or firing you.
If you are dismissed from your job for reasons based upon discrimination or related retaliation, this may be considered wrongful termination under the law. Employees can fight unlawful termination under Title VII and sometimes win substantial damages.
In fact, any type of discrimination against one or more employees can result in an expensive civil lawsuit for the employer. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 provided Title VII amendments to allow trial juries to hear cases of intentional discrimination at work. This law also provides for potential punitive damages for victims of flagrant discrimination. Since this time, many high-profile lawsuits have awarded multimillion-dollar verdicts to wronged employees.
RIGHTS UNDER THE FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT
The Department of Labor enforces protected leave for employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid annual leave for qualifying employees. Employees are guaranteed continuation of group health benefits and a return to employment following their leave.
The FMLA applies in the following circumstances:
- The birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth
- Adoption of a child or foster care and care for the child within one year of placement
- A serious health condition rendering the employee unable to perform essential job functions
- A serious health condition of the employee’s spouse, child, or parent
- An emergency arising from an employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent who is a military member on “covered active duty;” a service member requiring care for serious injury/illness allows for 26 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period
- You are an FMLA-eligible employee if you work for an employer with 50+ employees and have worked 1,250 hours the year prior to taking leave.
If you take advantage of your FMLA rights, it is unlawful for your employer to retaliate against you or to deny employment when you return.
WAGE AND HOUR RIGHTS
The DOL also administers basic wage and hour laws outlined by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Act protects children, restricting work hours for minors under 16 and preventing employment of children under 18 for certain types of hazardous work.
The FLSA requires employers to pay nonexempt, covered employees at least the federal minimum wage, with overtime hours paid at 1.5 times the regular pay rate. Overtime is defined as more than 40 hours worked within a 7-day week (without regard for whether work takes place on weekdays, weekends, or holidays).
Individual states have their own wage and hour laws, and employers must abide by the higher standard for payment of wages. When it comes to wage and hour issues, state laws generally provide more generous wages and protections than the FLSA. Federal law does not regulate employee rest breaks, vacation, holiday, or sick pay, raises and benefits, termination protocols, or payment for jury duty. Some standards are provided at the employer’s discretion, but your state may have regulations in place regarding overtime, rest breaks, etc. You can check out wage and hour laws for your state here.
WE GET JUSTICE FOR WORKERS. TALK TO US.
Are you experiencing unfair treatment at work? If you are concerned that you may be experiencing discrimination, harassment, or unfair pay practices, our employment law attorneys can help. Were you recently fired and believe it was a wrongful termination? We offer free initial assessments. Contact us to find out if you have a case.
WORKPLACE SAFETY & HEALTH
Employers are expected to keep a workplace free from hazards and ensure employees are properly trained in safety protocols. OSHA (or OSHA-approved state programs) regulates safety in the workplace, mandating standards that employers must follow, with regular inspections and investigations enforcing compliance.
Most employees in the country are protected under OSHA laws. Exceptions include self-employed and public employees, as well as miners, who are protected under the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
For the benefit of employees, OSHA provides an extensive list of workers’ rights, which include:
- The right to request a workplace inspection
- The right to participate in the inspection and speak privately to the investigator
- The right to review records of injuries and illness in the workplace
- The right to receive copies of hazard testing results.
OSHA also protects employees who file safety complaints from the fear of employer retaliation. The Whistleblower Protection Program enforces statutes that shield employees who report workplace safety violations or a job-related injury or fatality. Similar to laws under the EEOC, this law seeks to promote the reporting of illegal activity at work.
LABOR RELATIONS/UNION LAW RIGHTS
Employee unions have played an important historical role in improving conditions for American workers. Freedom of association and collective bargaining gives workers the power to negotiate for improved salaries, benefits, and working conditions.
An independent agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), assists union members in the private sector by enforcing the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA gives employees the right to self-organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their choosing. The NLRB investigates and censures unfair labor practices by employers and unions.
Unfair labor practices include:
- Attempts to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees exercising their rights under the NLRA
- Interference with the formation or administration of a labor organization
- Discrimination in employment terms or conditions in order to encourage or discourage membership in a labor organization
- Discharge or other retaliation against an employee who has filed charges or given testimony
- Refusal to bargain collectively with representatives of unionized employees.
Laws such as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) encourage negotiation and organization to facilitate employment agreements. Administered by the DOL, the LMRDA provides a “Bill of Rights” for workers providing for:
- The right to participate in union activities
- Freedom of speech and assembly
- A voice in the setting of rates of dues, fees, and assessments
- The right to sue with protection from retaliation
- Safeguards to prevent improper discipline.
Unions can and often do seek legal representation to assist with negotiations and resolve grievances. Many successful class action lawsuits have helped unionized workers fight violations of collective bargaining agreements and other adverse acts.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION RIGHTS
Workers’ compensation is a mandated insurance program designed to protect and provide for employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness. Generally, most workers are covered by workers’ compensation insurance, which provides employees injured on the job with medical treatment, wage replacement, vocational rehabilitation, and other benefits. If you are injured, and your employer or insurance carrier denies you benefits, you have a right to appeal the decision.
For workers employed by a private company or state government, workers’ compensation laws are administered by the relevant state or territory. Although there is a federal program administered by the DOL Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), it is solely for employees of the U.S. government. State workers’ compensation programs are listed on the DOL website, where you can find links to your state’s main office. You can also seek help from a qualified workers’ compensation attorney.
COBRA COVERAGE RIGHTS
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows workers and their families to continue receiving group health benefits for a temporary period after leaving full-time employment. Employers with 20 or more employees must offer a temporary extension of the coverage they routinely provide in certain circumstances. These include reduction in work hours or voluntary or involuntary job loss due to:
- Termination for any reason other than gross misconduct
- Divorce or legal separation
- Death of the employee
- The covered employee’s qualifying for Medicare
- Child’s loss of dependent status under the health plan.
It is important to note that COBRA premiums are generally more expensive than the original employee premium and may not be the most affordable insurance option for ex-workers or family members. COBRA is administered through the DOL, which provides detailed benefits information here.
IF YOUR EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS ARE VIOLATED
Employment and labor laws are ignored or willfully violated in this country every day. If you believe you have been victimized by discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, or other adverse employer action, you certainly have recourse. You can request help through the appropriate government agency, and whether or not you file an agency complaint, you have the right to seek help from an employment or labor law attorney.
An experienced attorney can help you:
- Negotiate a settlement for proven damages
- Try your case in civil court
- Get your job back or halt negative employer references
- Appeal a denial of workers’ comp benefits
- Obtain back pay for wage and hour violations
- Enforce union regulations
- Secure insurance coverage.
DID YOUR EMPLOYER VIOLATE YOUR RIGHTS?
Employment law cases serve as a deterrent to workplace abuses and can yield wronged workers substantial damage awards. If you believe your rights have been violated under federal or state law, don’t hesitate to reach out to our employment attorneys for help.