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Employees Rights 101

Employment law covers all rights and obligations within the employer-employee relationship -- whether current employees, job applicants, or former employees. Because of the complexity of employment relationships and the wide variety of situations that can arise, employment law involves legal issues as diverse as discrimination, wrongful termination, wages and taxation, and workplace safety. Many of these issues are governed by applicable federal and state law. But, where the employment relationship is based on a valid contract entered into by the employer and the employee, state contract law alone may dictate the rights and duties of the parties.

Employee Rights in the Workplace 

All employees have basic rights in the workplace -- including the right to privacy, fair compensation, and freedom from discrimination. A job applicant also has certain rights even prior to being hired as an employee. Those rights include the right to be free from discrimination based on age, gender, race, national origin, or religion during the hiring process. For example, a prospective employer cannot ask a job applicant certain family-related questions during the hiring process.

In most states, employees have a right to privacy in the workplace. This right to privacy applies to the employee's personal possessions, including handbags or briefcases, storage lockers accessible only by the employee, and private mail addressed only to employee. Employees may also have a right to privacy in their telephone conversations or voicemail messages. However, employees have very limited rights to privacy in their e-mail messages and Internet usage while using the employer's computer system.

There are certain pieces of information that an employer may not seek out concerning a potential job applicant or employee. An employer may not conduct a credit or background check of an employee or prospective employee unless the employer notifies the individual in writing and receives permission to do so.

Other important employee rights include:

  • Right to be free from discrimination and harassment of all types;
  • Right to a safe workplace free of dangerous conditions, toxic substances, and other potential safety hazards;
  • Right to be free from retaliation for filing a claim or complaint against an employer (these are sometimes called "whistleblower" rights);
  • Right to fair wages for work performed.

Federal Regulations on Employment Relationships

Following is a quick summary of key federal laws related to employment. For more information, see Overview of Employment and Anti-Discrimination Laws

Title VII

  • Applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.
  • Prohibits employers from discriminating in the hiring process based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

  • Defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • Prohibits discrimination against a person with a qualified disability.
  • Provides that if an individual with a disability can perform essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation, that person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their disability.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

  • Prevents employers from giving preferential treatment to younger workers to the detriment of older workers.
  • Only applies to workers 40 years of age and older, and to workplaces with 20 or more employees.
  • Does not prevent an employer from favoring older employees over younger employees.

Fair Labor Standards Act

  • Provides regulation as to the duration of work days, and breaks an employer must provide.
  • Governs applicable salary and overtime requirements set out by the federal government.

Family and Medical Leave Act

  • Provides that employers must allow employees to take up to a 12-week leave of absence for qualified medical purposes.
  • Stipulates that to qualify for the leave, the employee must have worked for the employer for 12 months and for 1,250 hours in the 12 months preceding the leave.
  • Preserves qualified employees' positions for the duration of the leave.
Getting Legal Help with an Employees' Rights Issue 

Employees have a variety of rights in the workplace, established under both federal and state law. If you feel that your rights may have been violated in the context of your employment, it may be in your best interests to talk to an experienced employees' rights attorney who will explain your options and protect your legal rights.

See also:

Next Steps
Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney
to make sure your rights are protected.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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