6 workplace rights to be thankful for

This Thanksgiving, if you’re thinking about what you’re thankful for, don’t forget to think about your workplace. Even if you’re not thrilled with your job and don’t get along with your boss, there are some key elements of the workplace that we can all be thankful for.

We usually take our workplace rights for granted, but it’s important to remember that we didn’t always have these:

1. Laws preventing racial or religious discrimination and sexual harassment. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the U.S. government outlawed workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. And it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the courts began finding that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination. Since then, the legislation has also been supplemented with protections against discrimination based on age (1967), pregnancy (1978), and disabilities (1990).

2. The right to discuss your salary and working conditions with your coworkers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) says that employers can’t prevent employees from discussing wages among themselves. (In practice, many employers have policies against this anyway, but these policies violate the law.) Similarly, your employer can’t stop you from discussing your working conditions with your coworkers. Here again, NLRA protects you, since it reasons that employees wouldn’t be able to organize if they were forbidden from talking with each other about such important issues.

3. Workplace safety regulations. It wasn’t until 1970 – when the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed — that the United States had major federal workplace safety regulations. By regulating things like machine usage, airborne pathogens, and electrical system design, workplace safety standards now keep tens of thousands of workers from work-related injuries, illnesses, and death.

4. Federally mandated overtime pay. It wasn’t until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that employers were required to pay certain categories of workers time-and-a-half for all hours over 40 worked within a given week. If your job is categorized as non-exempt, your employer must pay you overtime. The protection is so strong that you’re not permitted to waive this right even if you want to, nor can your employer offer you comp time in lieu of overtime pay. (Wondering about this “non-exempt” category? The federal government divides all types of jobs into one of two categories: exempt and non-exempt. Your categorization is not up toyour employer; it’s determined by government guidelines and based on the type of work you do.)

5. Laws requiring prompt payment for your work. Most states have laws that require employers to establish regular paydays and pay employees by that time. These paydays generally cannot be more than a certain number of days from when the work was performed. That means that your employer cannot decide to withhold your pay when business is slow, or because you performed poorly this week. You must be paid within the time limits established by your state. (And if you’re not, you can file a wage complaint with your state labor agency.)

6. Whistleblower protections. Wondering what would stop your employer from retaliating against you if you raised concerns that any of the laws above were being broken? Thank the retaliation provisions of all of the laws above, which make it illegal to retaliate against a worker for reporting violations of these laws. Under these provisions, employers cannot fire you, demote you, harass you, give your worse work assignments, or otherwise take action against you as retribution for reporting a violation of labor law. In fact, even if your charge was eventually found to be baseless, your employer still couldn’t retaliate against you, as long as your complaint was made in good faith.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Coelura*

    These are great, but the labor law that I am the most grateful for is the American Disability Act (ADA). I was fired from my first job because I have arthritis and wasn’t able to wear heels. The job was in a call center, but the dress code for women required heels. This was in the early ’90s! Even though I had a doctor’s note & was able to wear dressy flats, it was not acceptable to my employer and I was fired.

    I am grateful that I am no longer discriminated against because of a disability that causes fairly minor functional issues. My employer is required to provide accommodations and treat me fairly.

    1. Sascha*

      I can’t see why working in a call center, where I imagine you sit at a cube all day, necessitates heels…

      1. Nyxalinth*

        I’ve worked in similar call centers. The logic was always “If you dress professionally, you’ll feel and act more professionally on the phone”. I just felt uncomfortable.

    2. Anonymous*

      Your call centre must have been fancy! Heels? At the last call centre I worked at, the dress code was no dirty pajamas, no see through clothes, and that’s pretty much it. And it wasn’t even enforced.

      And heels are stupid. They hurt your feet and you can’t walk right and they shouldn’t be required anywhere.

      1. Chinook*

        The dres code stated “no dorty pjamas” which implies clean ones are okay? Woohoo – finally found a place to wear my collection of Eeyore sleep sets! (though do they have a length requirement with sleep shirts?)

        1. Jessa*

          Yeh most call centres I’ve worked in had pretty much – neat, clean and non obscene rules. And the last covered both rude pictures/sayings and way too short/sexy for public wear.

  2. Rebecca*

    2. The right to discuss your salary and working conditions with your co-workers. The National Labor Relations Act ensures that employers can’t prevent employees from discussing wages among themselves. (In practice, many employers have policies against this anyway, but these policies violate the law.)

    Good to know! I have worked for 3 privately held companies, and each and every one of my managers has told me, as an hourly worker, I am not permitted to share my hourly rate with any other employee at risk of being terminated. This includes the company I’m working for now.

    1. VintageLydia*

      IIRC they can ban you from talking about it during work hours, but not during breaks or after hours.

        1. Jean*

          I’m not sure why one’s salary would be considered a non-work topic.

          Had I known about this law when a friend of mine was let go for this reason, I could have spoken out against it. (Consequences would have been minimal, as I was being laid off at the same time for unrelated reasons.)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Meaning that it’s not conversation you need to have in order to get your job done. If they let you talk about TV while you work, they can’t say that you can’t talk about salary. But if they restrict all conversation at work to only matters having to do with what’s necessary to get the job done, then they can. (But they still can’t prohibit you from talking about it without coworkers outside of work, just like any other topic.)

  3. Mike C.*

    Just a friendly reminder that these rights are meaningless unless you’re willing to actually exercise them. That means being willing to report violations to appropriate authorities, supporting family, friends and coworkers who do the same, and ensuring that your elected representatives properly fund and maintain these regulatory agencies. Even ensuring that folks around you are aware of these right is incredibly important.

    You use it or you lose it.

    1. Jean*

      Thanks for the reminder that if we don’t ACT empowered, eventually we will become DISempowered.

      Grrr. It’s a shame we have to spend time & energy being watchdogs! The world would be a better place if everyone treated others as they would like to be treated themselves.

      1. Mike C.*

        One of the worst tricks I see is convincing people that they either can’t do something to protect themselves or that doing so is improper or immoral.

    2. Nikki J.*

      Yes yes yes! I’m in the process of providing every single one of our employees harassment training. When we talk about the part of Employee/Supervisor/Employer responsibility I stress, sing and drill into their heads that THEY are their own best advocates. If they aren’t willing to stand up for themselves, no one will. They all seem shocked I would preach such a thing. I also go into a great deal of information about retaliation rights, but people have severe trust issues…it’s sad.

  4. Anonymous*

    I am grateful that I live in work in California, which, though subject to the almost-meme in this blog “except in California”, has pretty good labor laws.

      1. TLT*

        Oh just lots of racism that the CEO knows about and does nothing about (this has already caused at least one person to quit). I’m just biding my time here while I job search.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Only you know your circumstances and whether this is possible for you and your family, but this does seem like a hill worth dying on. Maybe you do need to wait until you have another job, but please speak out at some point.

  5. Bryce*

    I’m thankful for blogs like this that have given me very helpful information about, well, how work works.

    1. Nyxalinth*

      Yet certain political figures would have us all believe that unions are concentrated evil mined from Satan’s very own strip mining pits in hell.

      I will say also am grateful for child labor laws. what kids had to endure before they were enacted was horrific. Not to mention the safety issues for adult workers. look up stuff like phossy jaw, but only if you have the stomach for it.

  6. Jodie*

    Starting a new job and I have been told I am not allowed to bring my mobile phone to work with me at all, I’m not even allowed to leave it in the office and collect it at the end of the day. I walk home and shifts finish late, anything up to 4am so I want a mobile on me to walk home with. Is the company allowed to do this?

  7. David*

    Is it legal to force someone to work by threatening to kick them out of where they live if they don’t work for free. I live in a motel right now and there is a person here who lives with a maid under common law and the owner told him to replace 2 commodes for no pay and if he didn’t he would kick him out. I thought the 13th amendment stated “” “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,”” applied here.. This is not me

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