Attorney at Law

Employee rights: The basics

James Parker
July 10, 2022
Last reviewed by
Boruch Burnham, Esq.
March 27, 2023

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. 

Many of those who look for answers to questions about their basic rights 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 an overview of some basic rights that employees have in the workplace.

1. The right to unionize

A fundamental yet often contentious topic in the modern labor market involves the right to form and join unions and engage in collective bargaining. Unions are organizations consisting of employees within a workplace who come together to collectively negotiate for better wages, working conditions, and other benefits for their members. They achieve this by using their collective bargaining power to negotiate with the employer and advocate for their rights and interests. This often involves using their numbers to counterbalance the corporate power of the employer.

Under section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, employees have “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

To protect workers in exercising their rights, employers are prohibited from interfering with union-related activities. Specifically, section 8(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 in retaliation 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 work in environments that are compliant with the general safety standards established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as any other standards imposed under federal and state law

This includes being informed by the employer about any prominent dangers, occupational diseases, or other health hazards that the employer knows of or should reasonably be aware 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 and the workplace becomes compliant 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 may find themselves facing even steeper consequences.

3. The right to be free from discrimination

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

The EEOC operates under the Department of Labor’s authority, and is tasked with administering and enforcing employment laws enacted under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This gives the EEOC the jurisdiction to investigate discrimination based on the following:

  • 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 traditional sexual harassment and discrimination based on pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

 It is important to note that an employee need not be fired to pursue a discrimination or retaliation claim. Employers will often create or fail to address hostile work environments, which is where other employees or supervisors make comments or engages in behavior that negatively or severely impacts the ability of an employee to work

The EEOC can offer various solutions for employees subject to discrimination, retaliation, or a hostile work environment. The EEOC can conduct investigations, provide mediation services, and even pursue a legal claim on behalf of an employee.

4. The right to fair pay

Employers may offer their employees whatever rates they want as wages as long as they are at or above the federal and state minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25, and if a state has a minimum wage above the federal rate, employers in that state are required to pay the higher rate. 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 of the employer’s choosing.

If an employer fails to pay an employee the minimum wage or overtime compensation, then the employee may be entitled to the total amount 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 their federally protected family leave rights, employees also have the right to be protected from termination while performing certain mandatory federal duties, such as jury duty.

6. The right to take work elsewhere

If an employer requires an employee to sign a non-compete agreement that is overly broad in scope, geographic area, or duration, then that worker has the right to challenge the agreement’s validity. Generally, a non-compete agreement is only valid where the former employer operates for up to two years. This is intended to balance the employer’s interest in protecting their intellectual property 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 pursue a claim to seek justice for the losses you have suffered and other compensation for the violations of your rights.

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

Through AAL, you can find a number of experienced and dedicated attorneys who can help you seek the justice 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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