4 mins read

What Are Employee Rights in the Workplace?

what are employee rights in the workplace
Daphne Blake

By Daphne Blake

Employee rights

Employee rights – we all know we have them, but ask your average worker to list them in detail, and most will be outright stumped. This is a gap that must be closed if workers are to truly feel empowered and self-assured in the workplace. So let's break down some of the most basic employee rights you have, whether you're working in the corporate world, retail, or the service industry. Most of these rules apply universally, but to get a specific read of your current rights depending on your occupation, state, or age, visit the links throughout this article for clarification.

The Right to Be Safe and Healthy

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The most clear and straightforward of all worker's rights is the right to physical safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), handles any violations that fall under illness and injury – such as being in the presence of toxic substances, or being cut by a blade while on the job. Sadly, over 4,000 individuals died at work in 2014, proving just how essential OSHA is.

In 2015, A major supplier to fast food chains and supermarkets, Case Farms acquired more than a million dollars in penalties when they were found to have improper ammonia refrigeration systems and inadequate training for workers, among other violations. "Case Farms needs to protect its workers. Period," said Dr. David Michaels, OSHA's Assistant Secretary of Labor. "The company has a 25-year track record of failing to comply with federal workplace safety standards. OSHA will remain vigilant until the company keeps its workers safe by making needed improvements to equipment, procedures, and training."

In January 2017, A new rule will require employers to submit illness and injury records, some of which will be publicly available. Employers are required to report serious illnesses and injuries that require hospitalization to OSHA, either by calling or submitting online. Workers themselves can also file a complaint directly through their website.

The Right to be Treated Equally

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The media rarely gives much attention to labor laws, but several discrimination cases have made local and national news in recent years, sparking a renewed interest in social justice around the country. In 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which processes some discrimination cases, received nearly 100,000 charges. In 2015, utility company Con Edison shelled out 3.8 million dollars in response to female employees who experienced ongoing sexual harassment, were held to higher evaluation standards than male workers, and were denied training opportunities, among other grievances.

"These women signed up for strenuous work when they took these important jobs — they did not sign up for demeaning job assignments, to be denied promotional opportunities, and to be subjected to rampant harassment, all simply because of their gender. EEOC will continue fighting discrimination in our nation's workplaces," "EEOC New York District Director Kevin Berry said.

Discrimination cases may be based around race, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or age – any trait that prohibits an employee or job seeker from attaining the same rights and benefits as others in their shoes. Aside from the monetary component, employers who are found guilty are typically ordered to begin in-house training programs and change their current policies to be more fair and inclusive.

The Right to Reasonable Hours & Fair Pay

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One consistent issue among American workers is the concept of "workaholism," which is typically judged by the amount of hours worked per week. One study found that "in the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week," ahead of several other large economies like Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland. And while it was not uncommon to work over 40 hours per week throughout U.S history, many question why we have not yet advanced to a more reasonable work-life balance.

The Fair Labor Standards Act outlines the current rules in place for hours and wages. Those covered under this act are guaranteed at least time and a half pay when their weekly work schedule exceeds 40 hours. The act does not require additional pay for weekends or holidays, unless overtime is worked on those days. Beginning December 2016, overtime rights will be extended to approximately 4 million white collar workers, including 2.4 million women. Under this new overtime law, employers can limit work to 40 hours per week and/or raise the salary threshold for overtime pay eligibility (from $455 per week to $915 per week).

In many cases, we know that overtime is worked voluntarily. However, the argument frequently made is that workers simply have no choice – signing up for excessive overtime hours just to make ends meet. This leads us to the controversial topic of wages, which has led many workers to challenge both lawmakers and their employers in recent years.

It's no secret that many food service employees are demanding that the minimum wage be raised to 15 dollars per hour to account for the ever-increasing costs of living. Currently 7.25 dollars in 29 states, the minimum wage has gone up a mere $2.10 since 2000. Several states have already voted to raise the minimum wage to accommodate inflation, and 8 states have "set the tipped minimum wage equal to the value of the full minimum wage." This ensures that workers who receive tips are still paid the full minimum wage by their employer. You can view the current and projected minimum wage in your state here, which covers 2015 through 2018.

For those who are owed money, the Wage and Hour Division website also offers a system where workers can search for their employers. Back wages can be claimed for up to three years. If the department cannot locate you in that timeframe, the funds are sent to the US Treasury.

The Right to Report Problems, or Whistleblower Protection

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Oftentimes, one of the primary reasons workplace infractions continue to occur is because all employees are wary of "ratting out" their company. They may fear serious repercussions, such as being fired or demoted, or even more minor ones, like being given fewer hours, or being disliked by their bosses or coworkers. These are reasonable fears. However, no one is lawfully obligated to work in precarious conditions. Luckily, whistleblower protection laws address this delicate subject, providing protection to employees who fear retaliation from their employer. If an employee does decide to report a company for breaking a law and the employer retaliates, this too can be reported within a specific timeframe.

A few examples of whistleblower protection laws include the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act – both of which protect employees who report specific kinds of dangerous conditions in their day-to-day environment. Other examples of illegal employer retaliation include denial of benefits, intimidation, and denying overtime.

While detailed employee laws are essential for keeping workers safe and satisfied, they can be exhausting to dissect and fully comprehend. In many cases, separate laws apply for those working in seasonal and temporary positions.The US Department of Labor website addresses many of these gray areas, including extensive information about breaks and lunchtime, family and medical leave, and workers compensation. With this information at their fingertips, workers can equip themselves to be safer and more secure in the workplace.

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