In the United States, a system of civil law defending the rights of workers has evolved over the last half of the 20th century, largely linked to the growth of the worker-driven labor movement and the civil rights movement. The laws regarding employee rights are relatively weak and rely on civil action to get satisfaction.
Legally Enshrined Workers’ Rights.
Employee rights are largely enshrined in state laws. In most states, the employee has the right to his or her personal possessions in the workplace. These personal possessions include handbags or briefcases, storage lockers that are to be accessible only by the employee, personal private mail addressed only to the employee. Employees have the right to privacy in personal telephone conversations and voice messages. The employee computer system is considered the employer’s private property so the use of the office computer network limits employee privacy. Privacy in the use of the office network is limited and subject to the interests of the employer.
In companies staffed by with more than 15, employees have the right to be free of harassment and discrimination (discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, national origin, religion, age). Employees have the right to a safe workplace as free as possible from dangerous conditions, toxic substances, and other safety hazards. Employees have the right to fair wages for work performed. Employees have “whistleblower rights,” namely the right to be safe from retaliation when they report unsafe or otherwise un-standard conditions.
Federal laws were designed to protect a minimal set of employee rights nationally (unless state laws offer better protection) in larger companies (more than 15 employees).
Title VII prohibits discrimination in hiring on the basis of the five institutionalized grounds for discrimination: race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides for people with disabilities the right to work if they are able to perform the essential functions of a job with or without reasonable accommodation.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act provides the right to expect equal treatment as far as advancement and hiring for older employees (over 40 years old or older) working in larger companies (20 employees or more). There are no age discrimination protections for younger workers.
The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a basic framework for employee working conditions, minimum salary levels, the right to breaks, reasonable work hours, and overtime pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act includes the right to organize. Employees have the right to join labor unions. This right to organize has been under continuous threat in the United States.
The Family and Medical Leave Act gives the right to up to 12 weeks of medical leave for employees with one year of seniority, preserving the jobs of those who take the leave. Employees have the right to take family leave if they decide to stay home to take care of a new baby or to care for a seriously ill family member. The employee has the right to expect that his or her job will still be there on their return.
Enforcement of Workers Rights.
If you feel your employer has violated one of the workers’ rights laws, you must make a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) in person, by mail, or online. The EEOC is tasked with the investigation workers’ rights complaints under the law. The process often requires the advice of an attorney.
Many employers view workers’ rights as a drag on their profits. Festering complaints are often treated through the company’s disciplinary process. Some workers’ rights protections are in danger. According to the The Washington Post, influential groups of business owners have been aggressively organizing a “Right to Work” campaign for decades. This political-economic movement would weaken the right of workers to join labor unions and to fight against discrimination in the workplace. Protecting hard gained workers’ rights has to be a conscientious ongoing effort.
Aiman-Smith & Marcy are expert attorneys in areas of employment law, consumer fraud & class actions. Please contact us to learn more.