Employee Rights and Responsibilities

Employee rights and responsibilities are important to ensure that all employees are made aware of what they should be doing to promote a safe and healthy work environment for themselves as well as colleagues.

Such rights and responsibilities can include benefits, safety regulations, health rules, use of protective gear, etc. This can also include complying with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, reading posters set up throughout the workplace that establish those rights and responsibilities, and warning signs for what employees shouldn’t be doing to put themselves or someone else at risk of a work-related injury or illness.

Employee Rights: An Overview

  • Employees have a right to be treated fairly and not be discriminated against due to age, gender, national origin, sexual preference, race, disability, or any other protected category. Such discrimination is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, not all employers are subject to this rule. The employer must have 15 or more employees.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on a disability, which is either a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major activities, such as someone in a wheelchair.

  • Age discrimination is also an issue in the workplace. Employees have a right not to be discriminated against based on their age. However, exceptions apply for certain jobs, i.e., police officers, firefighters, airplane pilots, and other similar jobs which would require people of a certain age, as some positions require retirement by the age of 50 or 55.

  • Even job applicants have rights when it comes to the interviewing process, which include a right not to be discriminated against under federal law.

  • Employees also have a right not to be harassed whether it be sexual harassment or other forms of harassment, including harassment based on a disability.

  • Employees have a right to privacy in the workplace. They should be free to keep personal possessions at their workstations or in lockers and ensure that no items will be stolen. Employees may even have a right to privacy in their telephone conversations. However, these rights, as well as rights to privacy through email messages can, in fact, be limited as employers generally have a team of security personnel to ensure that no wrongdoing is taking place on company premises.

Additional Employee Rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

FMLA is a federal law that promises certain qualified employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave on an annual basis without fear of losing their job. FMLA also requires that employers maintain health insurance for qualified employees while out on leave. FMLA was enacted in 1933 as a way to offer qualified employees up to 12 weeks of excused absence from their jobs without risk of losing the job. Since FMLA can be rather tricky, it is often a challenge for HR professionals.

Employers that maintain the minimum requirements are required to adhere to FMLA; however, not all companies maintain such requirements and therefore are exempt from the FMLA rules. Such minimum requirements include the following:

  • The employer must have at least 50 people working for the company for a period of at least 20 work weeks out of the year — either the current or prior year.

  • All state, federal, and local employers must also comply with the rule.

  • However, smaller employers are not required to abide by the law.

As previously noted, FMLA applies to certain employees. The employee must work for a covered employer for at least 12 months (one year), and at least 1,250 hours during those 12 months, before applying for leave under FMLA. In addition, the employee’s job must be conducted at a location where at least 50 other employees work, or within 75 miles of a location where 50 or more employees work for the same company.

In addition to the above criteria, one of the following must be met:

  • The employee must not be an elected official at the local, state, or federal level.

  • The employee cannot work due to a serious medical condition.

  • The employee has to care for an immediate family member who suffers from a significant medical condition.

  • The employee gives birth.

  • The employee fosters or adopts a child.

  • A qualifying exigency arises due to the employee’s spouse, child, or parent being on active duty or being called to active duty for the National Guard or Reserve.

Employees can take up to 26 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave in a given 12-month period to care for family members who suffer a serious injury or illness while on active military duty. The definition of “serious” injury can be hard to prove as the law states that the condition must involve more than three full, consecutive calendar days of incapacity as well as two visits to a health care professional that must have occurred within a 30-day timeframe.

Employees should be aware that an employer can, in fact, contact an employee’s health care provider to seek clarification about information provided on the employee’s FMLA certification form. However, the person reaching out for such information cannot be the employee’s direct supervisor. Rather, it can be an HR representative, another health care provider, or a management official working for the employer. The certification must only provide information that relates to the reason for FMLA leave; therefore, the employer cannot ask about other health-related issues or conditions that the employee may suffer from unless it directly relates to the FMLA leave.

The employer must provide employees with at least 15 calendar days to submit the paperwork after requested leave. If the medical form itself is incomplete or insufficient, the employer must indicate this information to the employee in writing. The employee will then have seven days to cure the insufficiencies.

OSHA Issues

Enacted in 1971, OSHA guarantees the safety and health of all employees in the workplace, except for those who are self-employed or immediate family members of farm families, as these two categories are exempt. Its aim was to further reduce the amount of lost wages and production as well as medical expenses and disability compensation associated with such illnesses and injuries. The law was enacted in response to annual workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths. Before the law was passed, a total of 14,000 deaths and 2.5 million disabled workers were reported on a yearly basis. Immediately after its enactment, however, workplace fatality rates dropped by more than 50 percent, and workplace injuries also reduced significantly. The law’s focus was on the textile and excavation industries, which are inherently risky.

OSHA is run by the Assistant Secretary of Labor, who is a member of the Cabinet of the U.S. OSHA is responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers throughout the United States as well as U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and Northern Mariana Islands. The goal of OSHA is to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

OSHA covers most employees; however, those who are self-employed or immediate family members of farm families who don’t employ outside workers are exempt from OSHA requirements.

All qualified companies can visit osha.gov for additional OSHA resources, including training and other state programs that may affect such companies operating in certain lines of business. For example, OSHA has training for employees working with hazardous materials, specifically for those employees operating in a company in which hazardous materials are constantly present. Therefore, different industries will face different regulations and requirements. Such requirements stem from workplace research and input from technical experts. OSHA also provides training for employers so that they are aware of the standards and requirements, and can keep track of training for their employees with regard to workplace safety and prevention of injuries.

OSHA can issue monetary fines up to tens of thousands of dollars for violations. Moreover, such violations could lead to criminal prosecution if the employer was negligent or otherwise failed to provide its employees with proper equipment to prevent injury. For example, if a company failed to provide proper safety equipment to its employees and an employee died on the job, the company would face criminal prosecution.

OSHA generally conducts periodic inspections of the workplace for potential hazards, any actions taken by the employer to mitigate the level of risk, and what type of training the employer has in place for its employees to ensure that they are well aware of workplace safety. During an inspection, OSHA will also review documents pertaining to prior workplace injuries or illnesses to ensure that proper steps were taken in those instances and to confirm that all records are specific, detailed, and indicate any follow-up steps that will need to be taken in the future.

However, if the OSHA inspector finds that employees are not using protective gear, he or she will need to document the failure and set up training through the employer in which an OSHA representative will be present and explain the risks associated with not wearing such protective gear or utilizing other protective equipment that the employer has provided. While the employer could be fined for such failure, the OSHA inspector will do his or her best to identify if the employer is at fault or if the specific employee(s) are at fault for failing to use the protective equipment and gear.

In turn, if an employee is aware that the employer is failing to abide by OSHA requirements, the employee can make a complaint to OSHA at which point in time an OSHA inspector will come out to the site to further investigate. The federal law protects the employee from retaliation on the part of the employer for such a complaint.

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