What Rights Do Employees Have in the Workplace?

May 7th 2016

In the United States, employees are legally entitled to work in a safe and healthy environment, and employers must follow certain laws regarding fairness in the workplace. There are federal laws governing discrimination, hiring, and family and medical leave, as well as specific laws pertaining only to certain industries.

Fair Labor Standards

Under the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must pay nonexempt employees at least the federal minimum wage and an overtime rate of at least one and a half times their regular pay. States often set higher minimum wage requirements than the federal government.

Occupational Health and Safety

Almost all employers are governed by the terms of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, these laws require employers to protect their workers from known hazards. This administration oversees everything from wearing hard hats on construction sites to asbestos mitigation.

Discrimination in the Workplace

Federal laws prohibit employer discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. As of 2015, federal law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexuality, but several state laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Special Considerations

There are several laws addressing workplace rights in specific situations. Employers who offer pension programs must meet a range of disclosure and reporting requirements for their plan participants. Unions must follow labor-management reporting laws for their members, and they must follow established standards in their practices and election of union officers. Employees in the mining, construction and transportation industries have special rights regarding safety, worker's compensation and other issues. Migrant and seasonal workers also have special rights detailed in the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Family and Medical Leave

If an employee works for an employer who has more than 50 employees, that employee is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. This act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualifying events, including the illness of the employee or his child, spouse or parent, as well as the birth or adoption of a child. When employees take FMLA leave, their employers must hold their posts for them.

Employee and Employer Resources

Employees can learn more about their rights at the Nolo Employee Rights Law Center, a legal website with articles on getting hired, discrimination in the workplace, fair pay, time off, leaving a job, privacy in the workplace, health and safety, and labor unions. Curious employees can also get information from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor or the AFL-CIO, a worker's rights and union advocacy group. Employers can read about their obligations to their workers on these websites as well.

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