When it comes to our rights in the workplace, it’s distressing how often employees are either ignorant of their legislatively protected rights or assume rights they have only to be acquainted with the truth in some bitterly unpleasant ways.
Regardless of full-time or part-time employment, if you are the employee of a company you have rights that your employer may have omitted from your employee handbook.
If you feel that you are being treated unfairly by the organization for whom you work or by your immediate line manager this article is designed to assist you in gauging the legitimacy of your grievance and whether or not your employee rights have been violated.
We’ll have a look at some worker’s rights you may not know that you have, followed by some that you may have assumed that you have but may be in for a rude awakening if invoked.
Firstly, let’s look at some rights that your employee may be reticent to make you aware of…
The minimum wage
The federally imposed minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, although there are fluctuations from state-to-state. California’s, for example is $10.50, Florida’s is $8.10 so while your employer may be paying you the federal minimum wage, it’s worth checking your state imposed minimum wage.
Your employer is also obliged to pay you for a minimum of 3 hours’ labor per shift regardless of time worked. Even if you were sent home after an hour because it’s been a particularly slow day you’re still entitled to three hours’ pay.
Even if you have unknowingly agreed to a lower wage, your employer has an obligation to pay you the minimum wage.
The right to reject unsafe conditions
You have the right to reject any work or working conditions deemed unsafe or potentially threatening. Occupational health and safety laws protect you from reprisals by your boss if you refuse to do any work that you feel is unsafe or dangerous.
While your boss may try and argue the case with you, chances are that they have no desire to deal with your workplace injury lawyer in the event of an injury sustained in the course of your duties.
Furthermore, it’s your employee’s responsibility to provide you with the environment, equipment and training to allow you to do your job safety. If, for example, you work with hazardous substances, you are entitled to protective clothing and equipment as well as training in how to handle them safely.
You break it, you didn’t necessarily buy it
We’re conditioned to believe that we’re accountable to pay for accidentally broken goods or shortages at the cash counter. The truth, however, is that your employer is not at liberty to deduct from your wages in the event of broken items or faulty workmanship provided that anyone else had access to said items. If, for example, you drop a bottle of liquor or a jar of pickles while stocking the shelves your employer cannot deduct their monetary value from your wage.
Paid vacation and overtime
Regardless of how many hours are in your contract, you are entitled to paid leave after 12 months’ employment. If you work more than 8 hours in a day you are entitled to overtime pay for every hour thereafter.
Your right to a discrimination-free workplace
You have the right to a workplace that is completely free of discrimination based on your race, gender, age, skin color, religion, cultural heritage, nationality, disability, sexual orientation and social or marital status. Moreover, it is your employer’s responsibility to accommodate any special needs that you may have in order to do your job properly if they fall under the Human Rights Act. These can pertain to either physical or mental / cognitive disability.
Finally, you have a right to file a complaint against your employer and take them to task without fear of reprisals. Your rights are protected by law, as is your right to complaint if you feel that they are violated.
Rights you don’t have
That said, it’s imperative that you understand what does and does not fall within the parameters of your worker’s rights. Therefore we’ve compiled this list of common worker’s rights misconceptions. These are rights that we have been led to believe that we have due to the rise of popular television legal dramas like The Defenders and Damages. While these shows are entertaining they’ve lulled many into a false sense of legal literacy.
So, let’s look at some worker’s rights that you may think you have, or feel you should have, but don’t.
Believe it or not, unless you live in Montana (the only state to illegalize termination without just cause), your employer can fire you at will. This means that they retain the right to terminate your employment for any reason (or, indeed, no reason at all). Is this behaviour egregious? Yes. Is it disgraceful? Yes. Is it illegal? Unfortunately, no.
The right to see your file
Want to know what information your boss is keeping on you? Unfortunately the only thing you’ll get by making demands from your HR department is an unsavory reputation. There are no federal laws that can force employers to allow you access to your personnel files. Some states allow you to see your file but very few will allow you to copy items. While it’s worth checking depending on your state, the only sure way to obtain this information is by suing your employer for a Request for Production or to subpoena it in unemployment proceedings.
Astonishingly, while your working hours are protected, working breaks are not. Your employee is not obliged to give you breaks for meals… Or anything else for that matter. Even bathroom breaks are not protected by federal law. That said, bathroom breaks could potentially be a health issue so you may have some backing by OSHA. Nursing mothers are also entitled to an unpaid break if they need to express milk.
While some states protect worker’s rights to meal breaks it’s probably best not to demand one unless you’re absolutely sure.
Harassment and Bullying in the workplace
While most employers worth their salt will have a procedure for filing grievances against your boss or colleagues for workplace harassment and bullying neither is illegal. That’s right. Bullying is not illegal in any state.
Unless you can demonstrate that the bullying falls within the bounds of discrimination (based on, for example, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc.) your best recourse is to check the company’s policy on these issues rather than invoking federal law.
First Amendment rights
Given that the first amendment is an oft-cited part of the constitution, private employers have no obligation to grant free speech protection in the workplace (or even outside of it). Even government employees’ freedom of speech protection has its limits. This means that if you work for a private company you can be fired for views on social policy, joining a political party or donating to a political cause that doesn’t align with your employer’s ideals.
Invasion of privacy
Of course your boss can’t break into your house or stalk you on the way home but they are within their rights to monitor your emails and internet usage while you’re at work. There are, however, certain legal restrictions when it comes to recording and listening in on phone calls. Your employer does not have access to your medical information but there is no federal law protecting your social security number (although if you live in New York or California, there is some limited protection against employers displaying your number).