Employee Rights 101: What Every Business Owner Needs to Know

employees looking at computer

What kind of rights do employees have?

There are laws protecting employee rights for good and fair working conditions, health and safety, wages, working hours, freedom from discrimination, the right to unionize, and more. As a business owner, you need to be aware of these laws to create a safe, healthy work environment that meets or exceeds these legal requirements.

If you disregard employee rights, not only are you fostering an unpleasant work environment but also opening yourself (and your business) up to liability.

Here, we give you a general overview of employee rights and what you should be aware of as a business owner. As usual, this article is for informational purposes and is not a comprehensive list of all workplace rules, so talk with an employment lawyer to make sure your company is following all federal, state, and local laws.

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The history of employee rights

During the Industrial Revolution, technological advances in mechanization led to huge growth in factories and production. But working conditions in those factories were terrible.

People with factory jobs worked long hours in dimly lit and dirty environments. Wages were kept extremely low because of the surplus of willing workers. Women were often paid less than men for the same work and children were paid even less. Machines were built with speed rather than safety in mind and accidents were frequent. Children were especially susceptible to injury and health problems from factory jobs.

These horrible conditions ultimately led workers to form unions and use their collective bargaining power to fight for better working conditions. Unions demanded safer work environments, better pay, an eight-hour work day, and rules around child labor. Our modern employee rights are based on their successes.

What is employment law and what does it do?

Employment law covers the rights and responsibilities between employers and employees. These rules have mainly been created to protect employees, making sure they are kept safe and are treated fairly. But some employment laws also protect businesses.

Basic employee rights in the workplace

Here are some basic employee rights, under federal law, that you should be aware of as a business owner.

Employee rights for a safe workplace

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), passed in 1970, says workers have the right to a safe work environment, free from exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, dangerous machinery, etc. Employers should proactively look for potential health and safety threats and remove them. If that’s not possible, they should let their employees know how to stay safe, and provide the right training and safety equipment.

Employee rights to fair wages

Employees have the right to be paid fair wages for their work. There are a number of laws in place to help protect employee rights to fair pay.

Employee rights to minimum wage

Nonexempt employees (workers who are eligible for overtime pay) must be paid at least minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour since 2009, but the majority of Americans are now covered by higher state minimum wages (or city or county minimum wages). Some states also have plans to increase their minimum wage to $15 per hour in the next few years. Learn more about how much to pay your employees.

Minimum earning levels also apply to employees who are classified as “exempt” from overtime. More information about this can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website. As with minimum wage rates, rules vary by location, so be sure to check local requirements.

Equal pay for men and women

Additionally, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 says it’s illegal to pay men and women different wages for similar work. A recent congressional report shows we still have a ways to go to close the gender wage gap, however. The average woman earns only $0.79 for each dollar a man earns. Gender pay inequality is worse for women of color. African-American women earn $0.60 and Latinas earn $0.55 on the dollar compared with Caucasian men.

Employee rights to be free from discrimination and harassment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in combination with more recent legislation, makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against candidates or employees based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, pregnancy, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. These employee rights laws apply only to employers with 15 or more employees and, for age discrimination, at least 20 employees.

It’s worth noting the Age Discrimination in Employment Act only protects workers aged 40 or older. So while older workers can be given preferential treatment over younger workers, federal law does not prevent age discrimination against younger employees.

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination. A recent survey found that one in three women have experienced sexual harassment at work, with the highest levels (42 percent) in the food services and hospitality industry. However, this problem by no means affects only women. People of any gender can experience (and perpetrate) sexual harassment at work.

Employers need to help protect all their employees from sexual harassment by providing antiharassment training and encouraging workers to report any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or sexual conduct of a sexual nature.” Employers must also establish adequate procedures to ensure that any suspected harassment is investigated immediately and addressed appropriately.

You can learn more about sexual harassment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Employee rights to be free from retaliation for filing a claim or complaint

Also known as “whistleblower” rights, employees have the right to “stop, report, or testify about employer actions that are illegal, unhealthy, or violate specific public policies” without fear of retribution, according to the National Whistleblower Center. So, for example, if an employee takes action against their employer for being negligent about workplace safety or being discriminatory, the employer can’t retaliate against them.

Employee rights to privacy

In most places, employees have rights to privacy, which means their personal belongings can’t be searched. Privacy rights extend to candidates before they’re hired, too. For example, employers can’t run a background check or credit check without written permission.

However, employee rights usually don’t extend to email or internet use on a business’s computer or network. (So employees should think twice before sending email that might be inappropriate for work.)

Employee rights governed by state regulations

In addition to employee rights that are protected at the federal level, states, counties, and cities can have their own separate laws (some of which are contradictory). Minimum wage laws are one example of this, as mentioned above, as are rules around when employers need to pay overtime. Child labor laws also vary from state to state.

So what do you do if laws conflict? Employers must follow all labor laws. When laws overlap, employers generally need to follow the law that is most protective of the employee’s rights.

For example, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, $9 per hour in New York, and $5.15 per hour in Georgia. In both cases, these employees are due the higher minimum wage. That means workers in New York are eligible for a $9 minimum wage and people in Georgia get the federal minimum of $7.25.

Talk with an employment lawyer or check out your state government website.

Employment laws can be complicated, and as an employer it’s critical that you protect the employee rights of your workers. To make sure you have the right rules in place, talk with an employment lawyer.

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