Who’s the Boss? Know Your Legal Rights as an Employee or Risk Losing Them

Many of us have been there: you pick up your latest paycheck and it seems lighter than you anticipated. You know you worked overtime this pay period — your boss asked you personally to come in early and stay late several times last week — but your pay stub tells a different tale.

Confused and curious, you ask your boss about the discrepancy. Surprisingly, he tells you that that was “off the clock work” to help out on a special project so the hours weren’t recorded. Your boss dismissively thanks you for your devotion to the company and runs you out of his office, leaving you holding the bag (and a suspiciously light paycheck).

Did your boss really just stiff you out of hours of overtime? Can he do such a thing? Is there anything you can do about it? It’s an unfortunate truth that getting and keeping a job in this economic landscape is a major task, so you might not want to rock the boat by pursuing such a situation.

Your boss is likely banking on this the fact that you don’t want to jeopardize your job. At the same time, though, everything your boss asks of you, or does to you, not might be legal. Here’s what you need to know about your rights as an employee.

Knowing the Ins and Outs of the Employer-Employee Relationship

Employment law covers a lot of ground. Whether you’re currently employed, applying for a new job, or you’re a former employee, the employment law umbrella has you covered. This entire realm of law is, of course, incredibly complex, as it covers a number of issues like discrimination and safety in the workplace, wages, wrongful termination — you name it.

A number of these issues are regulated on a federal level; even more might also be subject to specific laws depending on the state where you work, especially if you were hired under the auspices of an actual employment contract. In this case, it’s state contract law that’s going to be used to determine the extent of the employer-employee relationship between you and your boss. In the above example, your boss is clearly in the wrong: if you’re an hourly worker, cheating you out of overtime by claiming you were working “off the clock” is most certainly illegal. You got cheated, hard.

Every Employee Has Specific, Universal Rights

Yet no matter the circumstances of your hiring, you are entitled to a specific number of basic, universal rights. These specific employee rights include freedom from discrimination and an entitlement to fair compensation for your work. Many of these rights are extended to you even before you’re hired; if you’re applying for a position, you’re legally entitled to have your religion, race, gender, and nationality not influence your decision. Functionally, this means that you can’t be asked in an interview questions that revolve around your family makeup.

One of the biggest issues that many employees run into is a conflict over their personal privacy, a right that is often taken for granted. In almost every state, you’re entitled to privacy in the workplace, and this extends to things like your boss opening mail addressed to you or gaining access to a personal storage locker that’s for your exclusive use. Personal property like handbags, backpacks, or briefcases are also protected under privacy rights, as are conversations you have over the phone – anyone listening in on your telephone conversations, or listening to your company voicemail, is violating your privacy rights.

Beware: Being an Employee Means Giving Up Certain Rights Instead

While the right to privacy in the workplace is protected in nearly every jurisdiction, there are limitations. In fact, in several situations, becoming an employee of a specific company means giving up certain rights, or accepting that they may become diminished. A clear example of this is how privacy rights do not extend to your internet use on company equipment. If you’re using a company email address – or you’re using a laptop your boss issued to you – anything you do or say on these systems is not protected.

Additionally, there are some types of information about you, information that’s otherwise protected as private, that can still be accessed under certain qualified situations. When it comes to background checks or credit checks, for instance, employers need to seek written permission from a specific employee or a job applicant.

All Bosses Need to Comply With Federal Employment Regulations

Since legislation from one state to another can differ wildly, it’s difficult to give a proper overview of US employment laws on a state-by-state level. However, there are quite a number of federal employment regulations that employers have to abide by no matter what state they’re in. To that end, here’s a quick and dirty overview of the things your boss can – and can’t – subject you to on a federal level.

  • Title VII – If you’re applying to a company, you can’t be discriminated against based on your race, your skin color, your nationality, your sex, or your religion. This applies to any company with 15 or more workers.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act – the ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against you if you have been diagnosed with a qualified disability, as long as you can perform essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act this legislation makes it illegal for your boss to provide preferential treatment to workers younger than you if you’re 40 years or older. Noticeably, this law does nothing to prevent employers from providing preferential treatment to older employees over younger ones, so if you’re under the age of 40 you’re out of luck here.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act – this law controls federal salary and overtime requirements, dictates how many breaks your boss is required to give you during a work day, and how long your workday can be.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act – the FMLA is essential in protecting your employment status if you need to take time off for a qualified medical purpose. You can receive up to 12 weeks off without pay if you qualify, ensuring that your boss can’t fire and replace you during that time. Typically you need to be employed for at least 12 months straight before you can be eligible for FMLA leave.

Protecting Your Rights

This isn’t an exhaustive list of worker’s rights – not by any means. Many, if not all jurisdictions, also protect employees from having to work in dangerous conditions or locations without proper safety gear provided to them. Anti-harassment statutes cover workers from being sexually assaulted by colleagues or superiors, and so-called “whistleblower” rights laws also ensure that an employee won’t be subject to retaliation from their boss if they file a complaint or claim against them.

If you’re ever in a situation where you think your workplace rights be getting violated, it’s important to take steps to solve the problem. If your employer has a human resources department, speak to an HR representative immediately. If they do not – or if you feel doing so might make things worse or jeopardize your employment – it’s up to you to contact the US Department of Labor or to turn to an experienced employment rights specialist such as an attorney in order to protect your legal rights and to learn what options are on the table for you.


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