Employee Rights 101

Employment law covers all rights and obligations within the employer-employee relationship -- whether current employees, job applicants, or former employees. Many of the legal disputes involving businesses are related to employee rights and regulations. Because of the complexity of employment relationships and the wide variety of situations that can arise, employment law involves legal issues as diverse as:

Whether you're an employer, employee, or job seeker, understanding employee rights is crucial to a healthy and functioning workplace.

Employee Rights in the Workplace: An Overview

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 can't ask a job applicant certain family-related questions during the hiring process. Also 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. In reality, though, discrimination and other violations involving job applicants is very difficult to prove.

In most states, employees are afforded privacy in the workplace. This employee right applies to 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.

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.

Employee Rights: Federal Regulations

There are a number of key federal laws protecting employees' rights, which apply to employees in all states unless state employment laws provide more protection to employees. For example, many states have higher minimum wage requirements than the federal guidelines; employers therefore must comply with the state's minimum wage.

Federal employment laws include (but aren't limited to) the following:

  • Title VII - Prohibits employers from discriminating in the hiring process based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.
  • Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) - Provides that if an individual with a disability can perform essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation, that person can't be discriminated against on the basis of their disability; defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • 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; doesn't 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.

Let an Attorney Help Protect Your Employee Rights

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 employment attorney who will explain your options and protect your legal rights.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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