The Ins and Outs of Employee Rights

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As a worker in the United States, you have rights – to certain minimum pay rates, rest breaks, compensation, and safety and health standards. The exact laws governing these issues vary by state, but federal law ensures minimum standards to employees in all states across the United States. Upon entering the U.S. workforce, it's important to understand these laws and the rights they afford you.

Hours and Wages

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act determines employees' rights regarding wages and hours, including overtime pay. Both public and private employers are subject to these laws, which require them to pay covered, non-exempt employees at least the federal minimum wage and, in certain situations, overtime pay of 1.5 times that wage.

In nonagricultural positions, federal law prohibits the employment of kids under the age of 16, and the minimum age jumps to 18 for more dangerous positions. In agricultural operations, employers may not hire children under the age of 16 during school hours or in particularly dangerous jobs.

The federal minimum wage has stood at $7.25 per hour since July 2009, but many states impose their own, higher minimum wage standards on top of the federal standard. Employees are due overtime under federal law once they have worked more than 40 hours in a week, though again, some states mandate overtime pay after certain amounts of daily work, as well. Note that your "hours worked" comprise all the time you are required to be at your workplace or on duty.

Health and Safety at Work

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protects your well-being in the workplace by regulating safety and health conditions in private industries and the public sector. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employees to clear their workplaces of serious health hazards. Regarding lesser hazards, employers are required to point out potential and noticeable safety problems as soon as possible.

Recognized hazards include toxic chemical exposure, mechanical dangers, excessive noise levels, unsanitary conditions, and heat or cold stress. Employees should also have access to safe tools and equipment, and employers must establish, update and communicate operating procedures detailing how employees should follow health and safety requirements. They should also provide safety training in a language and vocabulary their employees can understand, and keep records of any and all work-related illnesses and injuries.

Harassment and Discrimination

Federal laws under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibit employment discrimination, specifically in the following areas:

  • Unfair treatment, harassment and discrimination by others in the workplace, including managers and co-workers, based on color, race, religion, pregnancy, sex, age, national origin, genetic information or disability.
  • Workplace accommodation for religious beliefs or disability.
  • Retaliation because an employee complained about job discrimination or assisted with an investigation or lawsuit regarding job discrimination.

That said, not all employers are subject to EEOC laws. The employer must have a certain number of employees, for example, and this number varies depending on whether the employer in question is a business or government agency and the type of discrimination in question. Specifically, businesses and state and local government employers must have at least 15 employees for EEOC laws to apply. Businesses must have at least 20 employees for age discrimination cases, though no minimum number of employees exists for state and local governments regarding this type of discrimination.

Note that EEOC laws apply to all federal agencies for all types of discrimination, regardless of how many people each agency employees.

Family and Medical Leave

If you're an eligible employee of a covered employer, you're entitled under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to take job-protected, unpaid leave for certain medical and family reasons. During this leave, you remain entitled to continued group health insurance coverage under the same conditions and terms as employees who are not on leave. This leave includes 12 workweeks within a 12-month period, and qualifying situations include:

  • The birth and care of a child within one year of birth.
  • Caring for a spouse, parent or child with a serious health condition.
  • Serious health conditions that keep the employee from performing their job's essential functions.
  • A qualifying exigency from the fact that the employer's spouse, child or parent is a covered military member on covered active duty.

This leave might also take the form of 26 workweeks during a 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious illness or injury, if the eligible employee is that service member's spouse, daughter, son, parent or next of kin.


About the Author

Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, Calif., and holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University.