Worker Rights

Today, it’s hard to imagine a workplace without worker rights. However, it wasn’t too many years ago the workplace was a much different place in the United States when employees were forced to work in unsafe environments full of discrimination and unfair treatment. Some of these rights we probably take for granted these days, but some we know just how valuable they are.

Protecting the Rights of Workers

There are many federal, state, and local regulations and laws that protect the rights of workers in the United States. Depending on where you live, the size of your employer, and the industry you work, the rights some of these laws protect are:

  • The right to a safe work environment
  • The right to a confidential work environment
  • The right to a workplace environment free of harassment and intimidation
  • The right to a discrimination free environment, with rights for individuals based on their gender, age, race, religion, disability, ethnicity, and national origin
  • The right to a discrimination free environment on the basis of marital status, gender identity, and sexual orientation, based on some states and local ordinances
  • The right to be paid fairly through minimum wage laws, and coverage for overtime hours (for hours worked over 40 hours a week or, in some places, over 8 hours a day)
  • The right to take time off work for the birth or adoption of a child, or for your or a family member’s illness

Do You Feel Your Workplace Rights Have Been Violated?

If you feel your rights have been violated, the first thing you should do is speak to your employer. Typically, you can speak to your supervisor or the Human Resources Department.

Most of the time, violations can be taken care of at this level, once an open and honest dialogue has been started. This would alleviate the need for further action. Most companies are trying to do the right thing and stay within the bounds of the law. Therefore they will work with you to avoid legal troubles.

However, there are occasions when matters can’t be settled at this level. Therefore, it’s best to research your rights before going in to talk to your employer. You need to be your own advocate, and more than likely the employer will understand your concerns and will rectify the situation immediately.

Treat this meeting with your employer like any other important business meeting. You will want to be prepared by taking notes and writing a summary of the events that have taken place thus far. You will want to have a resolution to the situation already developed, but be ready to discuss this openly with your employer.

It may be helpful for you to have a friend or someone not completely familiar with the situation review the written materials ahead of time. They can make suggestions on how to best approach the situation, as they may have a different perspective you haven’t considered.

More than likely, this is an emotionally stressful situation for you, and having a friend or other involved will help take the emotions out of the situation and will help you see more clearly on how to approach this meeting. You could even practice your presentation of the materials to your friend to see how the message will come off to the intended audience.

Once you meet with your employers, the next steps or course of action should be figured out before the meeting ends. Determine if the company is going to research the situation for you, or if your manager is going to talk to your co-workers. Determine if there are any follow up items for you. Finally, discuss when you will get together for any follow-up. It may be appropriate to follow up with a recap of the discussion via email to document what was discussed and ensure there is common agreement about the next steps in the process.

Continue to keep your own records during the investigation, including keeping track of the time line involved. Even if your employer has copies of the documents, always make sure you have a copy for yourself. Take notes during any conversations, or jot down the notes immediately after the meeting. Don’t assume you’ll remember everything and in these types of situations, the details are important.

Make sure you gather and keep any important documents such as emails, letters, employee handbooks, and any relevant company policies. Do not collect documents you shouldn’t have access to, as those could actually hurt your case.

If any of your co-workers were witnesses to any of the issues you are concerned with, consider asking them to write down what they witnessed in a signed and dated statement.

If deadlines are missed during the internal investigation, make sure you set up a follow-up meeting to see if any progress has been made. If you have taken all measures to discuss and investigate the issues with your employer, and you feel they aren’t addressing your concerns, it is probably the right time to contact an attorney or the governing agency over the concern you have.

Act timely, as each state has a time limit for bringing these concerns forward. The statute of limitations varies based on the type of violation, and can range for a few weeks to years. If you miss these time limits, your case may not be heard.

If you contact an employment law attorney, he or she will interview you and will be able to determine the strength of any potential legal claim, and will be aware of any deadlines you need to meet for filing the claim.

Can Bosses Do That? As It Turns Out, Yes, They Can

Employers have a lot of rights when it comes to monitoring their employees. There are very few areas that are off limits, such as they are not allowed to eavesdrop on personal verbal conversations.

Although employees still have protected rights with regards to free speech, they can be fired for posting on social media sites, such as blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, if the information they post violates other laws or regulations (such as confidentiality).

Employers have the right to look at their employee’s personal blog online, for example, if they are concerned they might be getting ready to quit or if they’re also working for a competitor. An employer could take potential action against the employee based on what they see on the blog.

Companies need the freedom to conduct their business as they need to, and fire employees who aren’t doing a good job, however, they should only terminate them for legitimate business reasons.

Conflicting Views on Workers’ Rights

When Republicans won control of the executive and legislative branches in 11 states in 2010, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers began to rewrite the rules of workers’ rights. They passed legislation designed to enhance the position of employers, some would say at the expense of employees.

A political scientist at The University of Oregon, Gordon Lafer, looked at dozens of bills affecting workers. Some of the legislation involved minimum wage, child labor laws, collective bargaining, sick days, and unemployment insurance. Mr. Lafer found some patterns to their legislation. He found the legislation he reviewed tended to favor employer rights over worker rights. He felt the legislation was tilted toward big government over local government.

One example is regarding how tipped workers are paid. Tipped workers in most states earn an hourly wage that is less than the federal minimum wage as they are also paid in tips. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour. While tipped workers are paid the lower minimum wage, their non-serving co-workers who don’t get tips are paid the regular minimum wage. In 2011, Wyoming lawmakers introduced a bill that would have allowed employers of tipped workers to force their serving staff to pool their tips. The pooled tips would then be redistributed among the serving and non-serving staff. This would allow the non-serving staff to be paid the lower minimum wage.

Also in 2011, Maine lawmakers passed a bill declaring that service charges are not considered tips and don’t need to be paid to the serving staff. Employers are allowed to keep the service charges and do what they like with them – keep them or distribute them among the staff – without informing the customer how that money will be allocated.

One area that needs better mandates and regulatory oversight is wage theft. Wage theft is when an employer pays less than minimum wage or doesn’t properly pay overtime. According to one study, nearly two-thirds of low wage workers were not paid 15 percent of the pay due to them.

Part of the reason this is such a large issue is that it’s not being enforced well through the country’s wage and hour law. There was one federal inspector for every 11,000 workers in 1941, compared to one federal inspector for every 141,000 works in 2008. Therefore, the average employee only has a 0.001 percent chance of having their wage and hour rights investigated in a year’s time.

One-third of all employers have been found, knowingly or unknowingly, violating a worker’s rights.

In 2010, liberal legislators in Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance that increased the fine for violations, resulting in more than 600 prosecutions and $1.7 million recovered in potentially stolen pay in the first year. The success of this legislation inspired Palm Beach and Broward counties to introduce similar legislation.

Low-wage workers have been experienced hardships due to the declining value of the federal minimum wage. Some cities and states have increased the minimum wage or index increased with inflation to ensure wages keep up with rising costs. Republicans typically try to halt mandated state or federal level increases in the minimum wage, arguing it should be held to a local standard.

State legislators have also tried to override local efforts to grant sick days to private sector workers. Nearly 40 percent of private sector workers do not have paid sick days.

In 2012, Tennessee passed a bill that required a series of dates an unemployed worker would have to start accepting a lower-paying job or lose his or her unemployment benefits. After 13 weeks, the unemployed individual would have to accept any job paying at least 75 percent of their previous wage. After 25 weeks, that amount is reduced to 70 percent, and after 38 week it is reduced again to 65 percent. To ensure compliance with these regulations, the unemployed individual was required to submit detailed weekly reports showing that he or she had applied for at least three jobs per week.

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