You don't have to put up with a miserable workplace. If your employer treats you badly or creates an unpleasant office environment, you can get help. Where you turn depends on the problem you're having. State and federal agencies investigate complaints about discrimination, harassment, unsafe working conditions and unpaid overtime. Also, employment attorneys will represent you in a wide range of workplace issues.
Discrimination and Harassment
Your manager and coworkers are breaking federal labor laws if they single you out for harassment. You can report the problem to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which looks into job discrimination based on race, religion, gender, disability, age or genetic information. The commission handles a catchall of work-related discrimination problems. If you’re written up at work for things your colleagues get away with, and you think it’s because of race, gender or another trait, the commission will consider your case. The agency also wants to know if your employer wouldn’t accommodate your disability, or if your manager asked you for private medical information. If you complained about harassment or discrimination, and you face punishment or retaliation, that’s also illegal. The commission works with businesses to stop job discrimination, but if negotiating doesn’t work, the agency will sue the employer.
Federal law entitles you to working conditions that don’t put your health or life at risk. If your employer ignores those rules, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can intervene. OSHA can tell you what your rights are, and it inspects businesses that may have dangerous working environments. When OSHA finishes its investigation, you’re entitled to see the results. The administration gives employers a chance to fix violations, and it fines companies that don’t comply. The bureau even gives you the right to talk to an OSHA inspector in private about your concerns. Don’t worry too much about retaliation: OSHA regulations make it illegal to punish or discriminate against workers who report unsafe conditions or help with an investigation. As of 2013, twenty-five states had OSHA offices, though the federal agency can help with your complaint, as well.
Pay and Benefits
If your workplace troubles involve wages or benefits, your state labor commission can help. State labor commissions enforce laws and regulations on minimum wages, vacation pay and overtime, among other areas. Your state commission can also tell you whether your employer gives you enough breaks or a long enough lunch, or if the company should pay for on-the-job training. If the agency decides your employer might have skimped on pay or benefits, officials will investigate the business and order it to pay you what it owes you. To make sure those wage violations don’t happen again, labor commissions may impose civil penalties. Most labor commissions accept complaints via phone or online.
You have legal options if your employer punishes you for trying to organize labor union representation. The National Labor Relations Board protects your right to unionize, or to merely consider organizing. The board also prevents or fixes unfair labor practices on the part of private companies and unions alike, which include retaliation against whistleblowers who try to improve working conditions, or against employees who refuse to participate in organizing activities. Neither unions nor companies can restrain or coerce employees when it comes to organizing. For employees with union representation, the board ensures that company and labor leaders bargain in good faith. The board also protects workers’ rights to strike or picket. To file a complaint and launch an investigation, file charges with your regional National Labor Relations Board office.
It never hurts to consult a labor lawyer. She can tell you if you have a case, and coordinate reporting to public agencies. Employment attorneys handle issues including job contracts, harassment and family-leave rights. If your company lets you go, a labor attorney can determine if you were wrongfully terminated, and get you a better severance package. Labor attorneys also take cases that involve a hostile work environment, which happens when employees experience unwanted verbal or physical conduct based on race, gender, religion or another protected characteristic.