Employee rights: The basics

James Parker
July 10, 2022

Whenever someone enters the workforce for the first time they are confronted with a whole new world. This world of employment is an ever-running machine that chugs along without end, bringing in new workers just as quickly as old ones retire or pass on. With such a constant pace, many workers scarcely have time to find their feet before plunging into a lifetime of work.

Of those who look for answers to questions about their basic rights, many turn to employee handbooks or contracts to define the limits of their freedoms and responsibilities. However, there are some rights that are fundamentally guaranteed by law but may not be prominently featured by employers, whether through negligence, malice, or some other reason. Today, AAL has compiled a few of the basic rights that employees have in the workplace.

1. The right to unionize

A contentious topic in the modern labor market is the right to form and join a union. Unions are groups made up of workers within a workplace who agree to use their numbers to leverage better wages, safer working conditions, or other benefits for their members. They do this by leveraging their numbers against the employer’s corporate power. 

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 is the law that codifies an employee’s right to unionize. According to section 7 of the Act, “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Not only do employees have a right to unionize, employers are not allowed to interfere with union activities or efforts. Specifically, section 8 subsection 1 states that employers are not allowed to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” who are trying to exercise their right to unionize. This includes firing employees for unionizing or making their working conditions so dire that they are forced to quit, a practice known as constructive discharge.

2. The right to a safe work environment

Employees have a right to know what dangers are posed by their workplace. This includes being informed by the employer about any prominent dangers, occupational diseases, or other health hazards that the employer has knowledge of. Employees also have the right to work in a workplace that is compliant with the safety standards established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

If a new hazard appears, workers have the right to stop working until the immediate danger subsides in accordance with OSHA regulations. If an employer does not meet or consistently ignores OSHA safety standards, then an employee has the right to file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. If an employee does file a whistleblower complaint, they also have the right to be protected from retaliation. Employers who retaliate against whistleblowers will find themselves facing even steeper consequences.

3.  The right to protection from discrimination

At all stages in the employment process employees have a right to be free from discriminatory behavior. If there is discrimination during the hiring, working, or firing process, then the employee can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC is a part of the Department of Labor dedicated to addressing discrimination in employment. The EEOC enforces a number of anti-discrimination laws including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilites Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This gives the EEOC the jurisdiction to investigate discrimination based on:

  • Age
  • Color
  • Disability status
  • Genetic information
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex

These subjects can vary widely in their implementation. For example, sex based discrimination includes both traditional sexual harassment, and discrimination based on pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

If an employee does experience discrimination to the point of existing in a hostile work environment, the EEOC can offer a variety of solutions. The EEOC can investigate the situation, offer mediation services, and even pursue legal action on behalf of an employee.

4.  The right to fair pay

Employers may choose to offer whatever rates they want as wages for their employees. However, employees are entitled to the right to fair pay. This includes being paid in accordance with federal or state minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and if a state has a minimum wage above the federal rate, then employers in that state are required to pay the state minimum wage instead. Additionally, the federal government enforces a standard rate of overtime compensation. After working 40 hours in one workweek, employees must earn 150% of their pay rate. A workweek is a period of seven consecutive 24-hour periods beginning and ending at a time that the employer decides.  

If an employer fails to pay an employee minimum wage or overtime compensation, then the employee may be entitled to the full amount that the employer failed to pay. This sum is called back pay.

5.  The right to take protected time off

If an employer is a government entity, primary or secondary school, or private company with at least 50 employees then they must allow full time employees who have been with the company for at least a year to take time off for qualified medical events as defined by the Family Medical Leave Act.

In addition to exercising federally protected family leave rights, employees also have the right to be protected from termination while they are performing certain mandatory federal duties such as jury duty. 

6.  The right to take work elsewhere

Most employees know that they work in an environment that is by default an at-will employment establishment. However, not all workers realize that they have a right to move on and work for other businesses as well. 

If an employer requires an employee to sign a noncompetition agreement that is overly controlling, then that worker has the right to challenge the agreement’s validity. In general, a noncompetition agreement is only valid in the places where the former employer operates for up to two years. This is intended to balance the employer’s interest in protecting their assets and business interests with the employee’s right to move and sell their labor freely.

7. The right to pursue legal recourse for violations of their other rights

If you have had your rights violated by your employer, you may be able to file a lawsuit in order to seek justice for the losses that you have suffered. By demonstrating what rights were violated and how, you may be able to receive compensation for your injuries. The best way to prevail in your lawsuit is with an Employment Law attorney.

An experienced Employment Law attorney can zealously advocate on your behalf in order to get you the best possible outcome for your case. Using their legal expertise, trial tactics, and expert witnesses, your Employment Law attorney will be able to gather evidence of your mistreatment and present that information in the most compelling way for your case.

AAL has a number of experienced and dedicated Employment Law attorneys who can help you seek the justice that you deserve.


*Disclaimer: Attorney At Law does not represent all lawyers in all states. There may be differences of opinion. It’s always advisable to consult with an attorney when in a legal situation.

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