Employee rights arise from federal and state laws that, over time, have established various rules that govern the employer-employee relationship. More broadly viewed, the phrase is often used to refer to rights not explicitly mentioned in law but inferred from legal protections.
An example of this is a “right not to be bullied” derived from legislation mandating a safe work place and prohibiting hostile working environments. Many employees also assume that they have by right what they actually have at the employer’s option. An example of that is paid holidays and paid vacations; these benefits are nowhere mandated by law but almost universally offered as employment benefits.
Employee rights fall under seven categories: 1) union activity, i.e., the right to organize and to bargain collectively; 2) working hours and minimum pay; 3) equal compensation for men and women doing the same or similar work for the same employer; 4) safety and health protection in the work environment and related workers’ compensation; 5) unemployment benefits; 6) nondiscriminatory hiring and promotion practices; 7) family and medical leave; and 8) ability to complain without retaliation (whistle-blower protection). Additional rights are guaranteed under state laws, but these vary: for instance, 15 states mandate a higher minimum wage than does the Federal Government. Sometimes considered as rights are prohibitions imposed on employers against child labor—which includes limitations on what kind of work teenagers under 18 may perform.
A partial listing of the most important federal laws that embody employee rights includes the following:
- Americans with Disabilities Act—covers rights of the disabled.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act—covers age discrimination.
- Civil Rights Act—covers racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
- Equal Pay Act—mandates equal pay for men and women.
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)—principally relates to hourly workers and minimum pay.
- Family and Medical Leave Act—covers maternity/ paternity and medical leave.
- Federal Unemployment Tax Act—covers unemployment compensation.
- Occupational Safety and Health Act—covers safety at work and workers’ compensation.
- The Wagner Act—original labor union legislation followed by many other laws.
- The Whistleblower Protection Act—covers whistleblowers, but federal employees only.
One of the more important categories of rights relates to discrimination. Companies hiring people may not discriminate on the basis of seven categories: sex, age, race, national origin, religion, physical disability, or veteran status. These categories are labeled “classes”; all the categories taken together are referred to in federalese as “protected classes.” Employees have the right to be considered for employment regardless of the class to which they belong—and everyone belongs minimally to three of these in having a gender, an age, and being a member of a race. Furthermore, the employer is prohibited from discussing the class-status of an employee during an employment interview even inferentially. It is prohibited, for instance, to ask: “Are you sure, Richard, that you’ll do well in a caring environment, like nursing?” Based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines for defining and enforcing Title VII’s requirements titled Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Sex (Code of Federal Regulations 29CFR1604.11). This regulation initially introduced the concept of conduct that has “the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”
[Emphasis added.] The regulation was last revised in 2002. The emphasized phrasing has gradually come to be claimed inclusive of other than just sexual conduct—such as bullying or aggressive religious or political advocacy on the job. As yet the concept has not been enlarged, but developments in the mid-2000s serve as an illustration of the manner in which employee rights established for one purpose can gradually expand to others. An earlier development along these lines was the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, amending Title VII, whereby the concept of discrimination on the basis of sex was used to expand its definition to include pregnancy.
Employee Rights that Aren’t Most employees believe that they have rights they do not have under law. The most common categories have to do with paid time off. A large majority of employees (77 percent in 2005) enjoyed paid vacations and holidays—but 79 percent of those working in 1999 had such benefits and had since that time lost the privilege. Similarly, most people believe that they will be paid for time spent on jury duty—but only 69 percent actually had such benefits; and only 48 percent of people were paid for military absences. With very large numbers of people enjoying certain benefits—but at the employer’s option—a sense of entitlement arises.
Often, if times are good, such benefits eventually turn into perceived rights.