no one knows their legal rights at work

When I started Ask a Manager 13 years ago, I didn’t realize how often the questions I’d receive would be rooted in a widespread lack of knowledge about the legal rights Americans do and don’t have at work. Every week — probably every day — I receive questions from people who don’t realize something their employer is doing is flagrantly illegal or who think they have way more rights than labor law actually gives them.

At Slate today, I wrote about how American workers have both fewer and more rights than they think. You can read it here.

{ 143 comments… read them below }

  1. irene adler*

    When my lab tech gave his 2 week notice, the CFO (who handles paychecks) asked him if he’d mind getting his final paycheck a week after his last day. Reason: his last day was not on a regularly scheduled pay day and she’d have to do extra work to cut his pay check during a non-pay week.

    Being the accommodating gentleman that he is, my lab tech obliged.

    I pointed out to him that in CA, if the final paycheck is not presented to him on his last day, he is to be paid for the waiting time that the check is overdue to him. In fact, there’s a 8x his regular pay -per day- penalty he would be owed.

    I suggested he do as he wants-just know his rights. He thanked me.

    I believe he received his final paycheck -in full-on his last day of employment with us.

    1. Wintergreen*

      I’m sorry, CA if often more strict than other states, but I was under the impression the paycheck must be presented on the last day was only if you were getting fired/let go. However, if you quit, the company was under no obligation to run a special check to pay you on the last day. You had to wait until the next scheduled payroll run and had the option of either picking up the check or having it mailed to you. I’m not sure how that would work if you have direct deposit???

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        It’s all state law for final pay. Even if you’re fired in Washington state, you don’t have to get paid until the next scheduled pay day.

        If you do direct deposit, that’s fine. You just have to present a check or deposit by that next regular pay date.

        Also if you were to require an immediate payment, if you use a pay roll processing company, they’re used to these things. they will do a special payroll run, yeah it costs you administrative fees of course.

      2. CatCat*

        In California, if you give at least 72 hours notice that you’re quitting, you need to be paid your final paycheck on your final day. If you give less than that, the employer has 72 hours to get your your final pay or mail it to you (employee decides if mailing is okay).

        1. Lucy P*

          How do they handle that when someone isn’t salary? Lots of people quitting (especially if they really hate the job) start working odd hours after they give their notice. What if on the scheduled last day, the almost ex-worker doesn’t show up until after lunch? Then you have to void out a check and re-calculate based on actual hours worked.

          1. blaise zamboni*

            In my experience, you report the hours you expect to work. If you underestimate, they’ll cut you a second check to make up the difference. If you overestimate, they’ll attempt to detract the hours from your PTO pay-out, but presumably that would require a new check anyway. I was like 20 minutes under my estimation when I left my last place and they just ate the difference instead of dealing with the hassle.

          2. CatCat*

            Yes, you could void a check and re-calculate. If that’s too much of a hassle/not going to happen that day anyway, it’s not against the law to pay the employee MORE than their final wages. Paying for the hours not worked may be less than paying a waiting time penalty anyway if the new check won’t be ready until the next day or something.

          3. Blue Anne*

            One of many, many reasons, as an accountant, that I don’t ever want to work in California. Or even with California clients, a lot of the time…

      3. irene adler*

        Aw, CA took away the 8X penalty.

        This is cited from the CA Labor code:
        Section 202(a) reads: If an employee not having a written contract for a definite period quits his or her employment, his or her wages shall become due and payable not later than 72 hours thereafter, unless the employee has given 72 hours previous notice of his or her intention to quit, in which case the employee is entitled to his or her wages at the time of quitting.

        Section 203 (a) reads: If an employer willfully fails to pay, without abatement or reduction, in accordance with Sections 201, 201.3, 201.5, 201.6, 201.8, 201.9, 202, and 205.5, any wages of an employee who is discharged or who quits, the wages of the employee shall continue as a penalty from the due date thereof at the same rate until paid or until an action therefor is commenced; but the wages shall not continue for more than 30 days.

        Section 202:
        Section 203:

      4. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        This was a HUGE pain for me when I left my last job. We were in CA, and they by law had to give me a paper check on my last day for my final paycheck. I asked for direct deposit and was told no, we cannot do direct deposit, it has to be paper.

        Well, I had to wait for the interoffice courier, who was late, so I got stuck hanging around for several hours after I had planned to go home, after they’d disconnected all of my computer access and everything, so I literally had nothing to do. And on top of that, we were moving cross-country and we’d already shipped the car, so we had no way to get to the bank, which was a credit union affiliated with my husband’s work, and was a good 30 minute drive away.

        I carried that stupid paper paycheck around all through a cross-country move, making sure it made its way through the TSA checkpoint and stayed in my backpack until it was able to get unpacked carefully and then subsequently stayed in the Pile of Important Papers as the place got swamped with unpacking detritus, until we were able to find a time my husband wasn’t in meetings to head to our new bank during business hours to open another account. I think it was two months, start to finish. Huge nuisance.

        1. Veryanon*

          California requires employers to give a paper check unless the employee waives that right (I know this as I work in HR for a company based in California). Employees can choose to be paid via direct deposit if they already have that set up. But yeah, California wage and hour laws are pretty wacky.

  2. Brett*

    Paycheck docking is another area where no one knows their rights (especially when combined with all the different state laws).

  3. AC*

    Trying to exercise your legal work rights in the time of COVID is tricky. I asked about my status (exempt vs non-exempt) because it was never put in my original job offer and my supervisor exploded on me. I felt my question tied into being one of the first to be let go during COVID cut backs. Where can we get information about support and the process for this; and is it even worth it picking a fight that is within our rights that can have these kind of ramifications?

    1. Mainely Professional*

      That’s just insane, though. It’s a simple question and there’s no emotion tied to it.

    2. Office Plant*

      That’s so strange that your supervisor reacted that way. It’s also very strange that you don’t have your status in writing somewhere. It’s a big deal if you’ve been working more than 40 hours a week- it means your company should have been paying you overtime.

      I would go either over your supervisor’s head or talk to HR to find out what your status is.

    3. Ominous Adversary*

      A wage and hour lawyer practicing in your state.

      Your supervisor probably blew up because they were doing something shady.

      1. Anon this time*

        SO had to resign from a tenured teaching position due to a health risk and Covid. School district didn’t even follow their own policy, let alone the federal guidelines in blowing off the ADA request. An employment atty has been contacted and is certain there is a case. We were so devastated when this all started and now feel like there may be some hope.

        Contact an attorney who specializes in your problem!

    4. W&H Lady*

      Your state’s labor division *may* have enough information posted online that you can determine whether you are exempt or not, or you might be able to call them for guidance. Exempt positions tend to be very specific to the type of work you are doing, like, for instance, being in a job position that requires that you supervise other employees might mean that you are an exempt employee. There are other factors to consider, such as job industry, whether you receive a yearly salary vs. receiving an hourly wage (although, receiving a salary does not necessarily mean you are an exempt worker), and so on.

      Of course, it would be up to your employer to tell you what they’ve classified you as, and the fact that they exploded at you for this question is not promising since it should have a very easy and basic answer.

      A State Wage & Hour Lady

  4. Lizy*

    Pregnancy and ADA is another area where people don’t know their rights.
    CrappyLastJob tried to tell me I couldn’t talk about pay – I told them I wasn’t one to talk about pay, but that legally, I could if I wanted to. “Well HR doesn’t like it…” ok, but they can’t tell me no, so…
    CrappyLastJob also tried to tell me I would be considered a resigning employee eligible for rehire when I took maternity leave. Uh… I’m not resigning and you can’t make me. “Well it’s just how we handle things.” Right, but that’s not legal, so…

    I got a new job where they didn’t mention either of those things. I just wish I had been more open with other employees about how illegal both of those practices were.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      CrappyLastJob also tried to tell me I would be considered a resigning employee eligible for rehire when I took maternity leave.

      Mere words cannot express how wretched that sounds and my contempt for the person who composed them (CrappyLastJob, not you, Lizy; you’d just be repeating them).

      1. Magenta Sky*

        “So, you break the law as a matter of policy? Is that written down somewhere? Because that’ll make an easier presentation to the jury.”

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Since you’re employed elsewhere, maybe consider if you’d be willing to report them. (Where? Ask Alison!)

  5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I have wanted to crawl under my desk more than a few times reading some of your letters and the open-threads on Friday. But sadly, I knew this all before there was a hidey-hole on the internet to talk about it. I’ve heard so many wild theories about workers rights over the course my work-life, nothing should surprise me at all anymore. But here we are. I have family in the service industry, who are notoriously taken for rides because nobody living on tips has money to know their rights, let alone fight for them.

    I’m just relieved you started this advice column and gave people some answers about their rights and their lack of right in the US workforce.

  6. Mr. Cajun2core*

    One of the biggest is the right to discuss your salary and working conditions with your co-workers—a right given to (most) employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the same law that protects unionizing. But an astounding number of employers have policies prohibiting salary discussions with co-workers, and they get away with it because their employees don’t realize such policies are flagrantly illegal.

    I know there are some cases where you can’t discuss salary. One of them is if you have access to salaries (such as HR or Payroll). I think I recall another situation where you can’t discuss salaries. I think it has something to do with being a supervisor level.

    Can anyone read my mind and have idea of what I am trying to remember?


    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      You can’t discuss other people’s salaries and wages but you can discuss your own wages, as a payroll or HR professional.

      The law does not cover government employees, agricultural laborers, independent contractors, and supervisors (with limited exceptions). :)

      1. introverted af*

        Ag laborers? What a crock of shit. My parents run a relatively-large-but-still-family farm, and I think about all the people that work there and work in ag – and they don’t have a legal right to discuss wages and conditions? That’s terrible, so terrible I’m really hoping I’m misunderstanding something

        1. Vax is my disaster bicon*

          Unfortunately a lot of labor law excludes agricultural workers. I imagine part of it is due to industry lobbying from very large employers, but there’s also significant racism built into the system via exclusion of industries historically staffed by people of color from many of the labor protections we take for granted. Domestic workers are another group that comes to mind.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Just because you’re not protected under the law doesn’t make it ILLEGAL for government employees from doing so. It just means that if a department in the government wanted to be secretive, they could.

        The government basically just about /always/ exempts themselves from labor laws! Something to keep in mind.

        1. I'm Not Leaving My Name For This One*

          And the few times they are not, they will hire outside contractors whose employees who ARE.
          It’s amazing the number of companies that exist only to supply non-union workers to the federal government.

        2. DivineMissL*

          I am a (local) government employee and our salaries are all public information, so there is no secret. Anyone can google my salary anytime they want, and it’s advertised (and voted on) publicly anytime someone is hired or promoted.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Oh yeah, lots of government agencies have public salary databases. I’ve casually looked at some over the years out of morbid courtesy. Some of what y’all are paid makes me sick to my stomach and keeps me forever in the private sector!

            1. Mr. Cajun2core*

              That is very true. However, starting off with I think 6 weeks off a year, 2 weeks annual leave (accrued) , 2 weeks sick leave (accrued), 1 week for Spring Break, and 1 week for Christmas, does have advantages.

              1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

                I don’t like time off and find it to be suffocating, so that’s not impressive to me.

                But I know that lots of folks think of it as a big incentive. Along with the fact it’s so hard to get let go from the positions once you’re in the door.

                But I like cash instead of security and having to work with people that can’t get fired, lol.

                1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  I don’t like time off and find it to be suffocating, so that’s not impressive to me.


                  I like considerable portions of what I do, and time away is stressful and usually more punishment when I return than relaxation while I’m gone. I’d kill for my next employer to let me trade away most of my vacation for better sleep because it’s easier to pay my family’s bills and the work I’m responsible for is being done right.

          2. kittymommy*

            Yeah, the local government I am in it is public record (not necessarily online but you can call our HR and get it). Our state has it’s salaries online though. I haven’t checked it in a while but they used to be by name.

          3. Magenta Sky*

            That means that, if the policy is in place, the average Joe on the street can look up your salary, but you’re not allowed to talk about it in the workplace. You have to go outside to do so.

            1. fhgwhgads*

              It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not allowed to talk about it in the workplace. It means you *can* legally be prohibited from doing so, not that you are automatically prohibited from doing so. The law that gov employees are exempted from is the one protecting the ability to do so.

          4. Brett*

            Just as a minor correction, often it is _compensation_ that is public information, not _salary_ or hourly wage.
            This seems like a minor difference, but I’ve seen people often pick up inaccurate numbers because they don’t realize that overtime, comp time, retirements, even reimbursements can alter compensation numbers from actual salaries. Even when you know the actual salaries, years in service can be such an enormous factor in pay that it can still make it difficult to understand differences in pay based just off public information.

        3. Mr. Cajun2core*

          Good point, “The Man, Becky Lynch” about not being illegal but only that the department could forbid it.

        4. Mr. Cajun2core*

          The government basically just about /always/ exempts themselves from labor laws! Something to keep in mind.

          One example is that if you work for a government agency (like a University) they can pay you with comp-time rather than money for overtime.

      2. Mr. Cajun2core*

        As I and others have mentioned, my salary (or anyone’s at the University) is publicly available. It is easy to find if you know the right URL.

  7. lesley*

    I have always puzzled how we are beholden to so many laws that most people aren’t aware of.

    Courts say “ignorance of the law is no excuse” but how can everyone keep track of every single law that applies to them? That’s why we have lawyers … the law is so complex that ordinary people can’t understand it.

    I really wish laws were simplified and there were better resources to help people understand them. Especially in employment law like you mention but really in all areas.

    1. Firecat*

      Basic employment law is one of those things I believe should be in a mandatory home finance/home economics class.

      In the same fictional class I would have loved to learn about: buying a home, maintaining a yard, fixing a flat tire, microwave wattage, IRAs, and various other “why on earth did I not learn this before I was 30?” topics.

      Also I do enjoy reading the OSHA posters but they fail to cover the stat laws which often have more immediate impacts.

      1. Chinook*

        It is called Career and Life Management in Alberta and they cover many of those things (except household maintenance). It also helps if your government has a “plain language” mandate that makes their websites easy to understand and search.

        1. Orbit*

          I’m in Alberta, I had to take C.A.L.M. In high school twenty some years ago and it was mildly useful. I still remember having to make a budget based on a hypothetical job, and then look through the paper to find an apartment for rent in my price range.

          My oldest just started high school and we were told they have to take it online on their own time sometime over the next three years. Apparently most kids take it over the summer between grade 10 and 11.

      2. Western Rover*

        The high school in the town where I used to live had a class like this. Many sessions were taught by various guest lecturers (I imagine the teacher didn’t have universal expertise). The session on “how to buy a car” was taught by a salesman from the local dealership (it was a small town). I wonder if he covered the importance of always springing for the optional undercoat and window etching….

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Worse than this, it’s hard to get employers [deep pockets] to stop doing illegal things because of the cost of lawyers. This is why we have some soldiers among the law community who works for workers rights without costing a fortune but there isn’t enough of them.

      I’ve seen a few “settlements” that are a damn joke. For a person without two cents to rub together, a four or low five digit payout is plenty to have them signing off on the claims they have against a company.

      The DOL will even make you get a lawyer to fight for penalties and interest if someone steals your wages.

      So even when you know your rights…you can be totally screwed over by the awful system.

      1. Ominous Adversary*

        It’s not the cost of lawyers exactly – most lawyers who handle these cases do so on contingency because nobody could afford them otherwise. But most people don’t know that either. And shady employers have a nasty habit of pretending to go bankrupt, closing down and re-opening under a different name, and playing all kinds of other games to cheat their employees.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          This is a good note!

          Yeah DOL even says “We’ll ask them to pay but if they don’t have money, they don’t have money.” to summarize their paperwork for when you file for wage theft…

          I know too many shady MOFOs and that’s exactly it. You can’t bleed a turnip. Which is part of the blessing to be on the financial side of things. I know if you’re broke and I don’t hangout with broke.

    3. Junior Assistant Peon*

      This is why national chains have taken over – it isn’t that people love Olive Garden, Home Depot, etc; it’s that the neighborhood restaurant or hardware store gets fined thousands of dollars for having a bathroom that isn’t handicap-accessible or something like that. Big companies have armies of lawyers to navigate this stuff.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I’ve never seen a neighborhood restaurant or hardware store fined for bathroom violations. And I get the “Shame on them” emails from the department of labor and industries. So I hear when places get fined any large amount! This is how I know that quite a few fast food chains get popped for breaking child labor laws :(

        That’s a building code issue and many are in older buildings, if you don’t preform construction on an old building [and it’s not dangerous of course], you don’t always need to bring it up to code either. Lots of local loopholes there for the small business in a hole of a store front.

        But yes, if you put in to do construction, it has to be up to today’s code and ADA compliant. So that’s why you see a lot of run down nasty ass business fronts :(

        Our construction company made damn sure we were compliant, they couldn’t not or it wouldn’t have passed inspections.

        1. Magenta Sky*

          California has some . . . special laws that allow private enforcement of certain requirements. For a while, there were “activists” in Los Angeles who would file suits against various retailers, some of the ones that made the local news were hardware stores, for trivial things like wheelchair ramps that were an inch too narrow or a grab bar in the bathroom that was an inch too high or too low. Then off to settle for a fraction (still several thousand dollars) of what lawyers could cost.

          Technically, they were within the law, but it was so egregious that, in the end, the entire law firm was disbarred, and the wheelchair bound ringleader was (I think) declared a vexatious litigant.

          It didn’t get nearly the news coverage it should have. We heard about it because they were targeting hardware stores, which is our business.

          1. Vexatious litigant*

            ‘Vexatious litigant’?!!!

            I think I found my new screen name! Why in the world does this sound sexy to me?

      2. Kanon*

        Interesting perspective because the two obvious ADA violations near me are both from large chains. The local businesses near me are actual the most conscious of these.

    4. Joielle*

      I don’t disagree with this on principle, but as a lawyer (and as a person who used to literally write state laws for a living) I have to defend the law’s complexity a little. Laws are complex because they’re trying to account for a huge diversity of people and situations, using a fairly blunt instrument (i.e. laws that are designed to be generally applicable) to affect people’s lives in very specific ways. For the whole system to be internally consistent, terms have to be defined carefully, laws have to reference each other, etc. A lot of areas of law are necessarily complex because they deal with technical topics (like building codes or professional licensing). And no matter how well laws are written, there will inevitably be a situation that nobody thought of, which leads to litigation and eventually, case law – which adds another layer of complexity.

      There are certainly opportunities for simplifying the law, and for writing it in plainer language (which is one of my personal crusades), and for improving access to legal education and representation. But if our system of laws was simple enough for every person to understand all of it, it wouldn’t work very well in practice.

      1. Kathlynn (canada)*

        Sometimes it’s just that one gov orginization/regulations (from my Canadian experience) says things like “you don’t have to buy xyz for your employees”, but another one does. And if that was all centralized, and laid out nicely it would be much nicer. (like have it say, by empoyment regulations, you aren’t require to buy your employees insert equipment, but you should also check what [OHAS] has to say about this as well)
        Like for some reason employers don’t follow privacy regulations in Canada very well. Probably because they are much less thought about then employment or safety laws. And there are two parts that constantly get broken, the “don’t require a sick note without cause” and “you can’t have your belongings searched without them actually thinking you are stealing”. Like companies legit put it in their ads that you will have to have your bag searched at the end of every shift.

        1. Joielle*

          Yeah – that’s a whole other layer of complexity! The laws themselves are often complicated, and then implementing agencies (and certainly employers) can muck things up and make it even more confusing. You think you’re doing the right thing and following guidance documents, and it turns out the guidance documents themselves were wrong, or weren’t detailed enough. It’s a real problem, especially since it IS generally so expensive to hire an attorney to sort out what seems like a simple question that should have a straightforward answer.

      2. Western Rover*

        I understand that the world is complicated enough that there has to be more law than any one person can keep track of. But then why can’t the government have a customer service dept to clarify the law, and (unlike the IRS) if you follow their advice you’re good to go?
        I’m thinking of that business some years back that was being fined by the health dept for having a vintage tobacco advertisement on their outside wall, while at the same time the historic preservation society was threatening to fine them if they covered it up. If the govt had a local rep who gave binding answers to questions, then that person would have had to resolve the conflict rather than throwing it off onto the business.
        This would also resolve the issues like “ramp an inch too narrow” that Magenta Sky mentioned.

        1. Joielle*

          I mean, a government could decide to provide free legal services for citizens. That would be awesome. But even an attorney can’t give “binding answers” to most legal questions because if someone sues, the answer is up to the judge (and if the decision is appealed, it’s up to a different judge, etc).

          It’s just… not as simple as it seems like it should be. I don’t mean to diminish the very real problem of people not being able to get legal questions answered, because it IS a serious problem. The solution requires a lot more money than governments have been willing to devote to it.

          And ultimately, the problem is capitalism – the very fact that individual employees are up against corporations with practically unlimited resources and no incentive to operate in the employees’ best interest. If the playing field were more even, we’d be able to sidestep some of these issues altogether.

  8. Heidi*

    The subject of unionizing comes up regularly in this column. I have several friends who work in the legal profession who feel that unions are often not well-managed. Are there performance measures or standards for unions? How does a newly-formed union get going?

    1. roundround*

      My experience with unions is mixed. While they do get us higher wages they also do things like fight for illegal workers, when illegal workers are part of the problem in my industry that drag down wages in the first place. One union I was part of in another related industry to my current one also liked to go beyond their remit and get into social issues. They believed it was part of their charter to advance the moral good of their union members so they’d do stuff like fight against same sex marriage and a bunch of conservative Catholic ideas. I just want my wages, I can look after my own moral well being.

    2. Pheasant Feathers*

      Unions are overseen by the Dept of Labor (at least in the US), and primarily by the LMRDA (Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959) which established several of the rules that Unions need to follow. In some ways it’s very helpful; it has a lot of specifics around elections (Union elections having been a huge issue in the 1950s) as well as how money can be used (due to Union leader corruption, also in the 1950s), and a few other areas. All Unions are required to have annual audits, for example, and they are closely monitored as far as how they use money. On the other hand, there are whole swathes of activity not covered by this act, and because it hasn’t been updated since 1959, some of the rules are… outdated, to say the least. (If you are curious, the Wikipedia article is helpful and not as dense/dry as it could be.)

      Unions are also required to follow the rules of US Code 7114, which lays out specific laws about what Union responsibilities are (for example, representing bargaining unit employees in possible disciplinary interviews with management, known as Weingarten rights) and what Management rights are in return.

      The problem is that there’s a wide range of unions in the US and they get set up in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of situations. Some are highly organized and absolutely huge, such as the Teamsters or the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Others are smaller, and may be made up of just the employees at one tiny company. The last several years many states have been hostile towards unions and laborers, and have chosen not to respect the laws surrounding how companies are supposed to act towards unions (for example, making it difficult for union reps to represent their bargaining unit employees in ways that are technically illegal but no one with the power to change it will do so). In addition, in a lot of the unions that I’m familiar with, most of the reps (at least on a local level) and even executive board members (president, vice president, etc.) are either volunteers or paid only a tiny tiny amount. So that’s probably part of the reason that your legal profession friends feel that unions they encounter aren’t well-managed; to a certain extent, if you leave something like this up to volunteers you’re going to get uneven results, and if you don’t have paid staff managing things then that’s going to come out in the way things work out.

      1. LavaLamp*

        You’d be surprised. At my old job, I used an intermittent FLMA. My boss and grandboss simply didn’t get it. They kept trying to get me to make up time used under my FMLA, and other illegal things. It ended in a meeting with HR where they were trying to write me up for absenteeism. They NEVER told the HR person i had FMLA protections. I had been telling them the whole time that what they were doing was illegal but I don’t think they believed me to be honest. They were launching into their spiel and I ended the meeting by throwing out the “This is actually FMLA discrimination”. I could hear the poor HR person have a record scratch moment. I found out later on that neither manager had ever had anyone on that kind of FMLA before and that my manager thought she was enforcing rules to make things fair for everyone.

        1. Just Jess*

          The HR person didn’t have access to a record of your FMLA request? That’s really something that should be handled by HR anyway (HR sees the medical documentation rather than the manager, manager notes what time is taken for FMLA but doesn’t ask for specifics, HR keeps the detailed records away from the manager, etc.). It should also be clearer to employees that they only need to tell their manager that they are requesting FMLA time and then file with HR.

          1. LavaLamp*

            She did, but she was new and they actively prevented her from knowing about it until I brought it up. My leave was contracted out to a third party company for the most part as well. As soon as I said that the meeting ended, and I’m pretty sure my boss was written up. I truly think it was ignorance on top of wanting things to be ‘fair’, and not actively malicious.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      This happened with an old co-worker of mine – because of her excessive 12-week absence…um, that was maternity leave. When she went to HR to discuss the review they said they couldn’t help her because she had already signed it saying she acknowledged and agreed with it.

      I was not surprised at this, really, because she was also denied PTO because she had “taken enough vacation”…again – maternity leave – and she had actually taken zero vacation time and had a couple weeks balance. She quit shortly after I did.

  9. Van Wilder*

    I recently read a Twitter feed about how wage theft accounts for more dollars stolen than all other types of theft (combined) in the US. But wage theft is a civil issue, not a criminal issue. Just another fascinating glimpse of where Americans place their values.

    1. Kathlynn (canada)*

      Not just the USA, it’s the same in Canada, and most (if not all) other places whose employment laws I’ve heard of. And it really makes no sense to me why breaking some laws/regulations don’t have a proactive enforcement or actual consequence, like breaking criminal laws do. (I mean, corruption, and whose campaigning for how those laws are enforced definitely plays a part. But logistically, if defrauding a company, or stealing from your employer is a criminal offence, then stealing from your employee should be too)

  10. Tracer Bullet*

    Most people don’t talk about their salary not because they think it’s illegal but because there’s nothing protecting them if they do. You might have a case if you get fired, but that does you no good in the short term and the company is much better prepared to drag out a legal fight.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      I think quite a lot of people really don’t *want* to talk about wages at work anyway. Some combination of believing (probably incorrectly) that they make more than everybody else, and fear of finding out they make less.

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I also think they’re a layer of pointlessness to it to many employees.

      If I’m paid less than they are, that’s not a prima facie argument to pay me more. Am I as productive as those I’m comparing notes with?

      If I’m paid more than they are, is that going to foster resentment? If that person goes complaining, will the business rob Peter to pay Paul and hold back my merit increases to level the salaries? Or will that person throw work at me? “Sola makes the big bucks; send the hard work to that queue.” Or just go interviewing and I’m going to inherit all of their work?

      If benefits aren’t totally standardized and inflexible, did one of my coworkers compromise on their pay rate to acquire more time off or another benefit?

      I try to avoid conversations about money and politics. Rational discussions about each are far too rare, and the fallout has usually dwarfed the desired benefit.

      1. But There is a Me in Team*

        Exactly. This isn’t something I ever want to talk about with my colleagues. IME, no good comes of it. Plus, finances are private for me. I know some younger folks feel differently and that’s OK but I like keeping some aspects of my life private at work.

    3. Person from the Resume*

      I think many people were taught and continue to believe that talking about money is impolite and it’s somehow bragging.

      Or their worth a human being or provider is mixed up with their income and they’re ashamed to share salary information.

      I don’t get it myself, but I’ve always been federal government and my salary could be figured out by anyone with details of my length of service and rank.

      1. Radical Edward*

        ^^^ This. One of my parents was a public educator (so, payscale and benefits were always public record) but still refused to discuss it with me in actual numerical terms. And insisted, throughout my teenage and postgrad years, that I never tell other people what I was earning at any job because it ‘wasn’t appropriate’.

        Even now, most of my friends of similar ages and background are incredibly reluctant to talk about their earnings. We were all conditioned to feel that it’s a shameful and invasive topic.

        And that’s how we get screwed.

      2. Mints*

        Yeah, I understand that WASP culture teaches that it’s rude, so I never ask, but I don’t mind answering if somebody sounds curious. It’s so important. Secrecy only benefits management. (It doesn’t benefit higher paid workers, either. We want smart coworkers to stick around, so we want good retention goals.)

    4. HS Teacher*

      The problem is there is a wage gap with regard to gender, race, family status, etc. The only way that gets uncovered is by talking about it. Alison is great about explaining this concept, but yet people still think it’s inappropriate to talk about pay. I guess if I were from a privileged group I could see that perspective, but I’m a minority in three different ways, and I’m glad I work in public education where salaries are public and based on experience and education.

  11. Junior Assistant Peon*

    At my first teenage job, I thought all the legally-required stuff was my employer doing things out of the kindness of their hearts (break periods, time-and-a-half for OT, an official process of warnings before they can fire you, etc).

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Ah and don’t forget that as a teenager the laws are MORE strict.

      Federally you aren’t given any rights to meal/rest breaks. States are responsible for the meal and breaks. Some have them, some do not.

  12. irene adler*

    Someone once told me that an employer must give the employee a day’s advanced notice if said employee is expected to work overtime.
    Nice if you can get the employer to comply.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is a state law as well. Also something that’s common in CBAs.

      I caution a lot of folks who take this kind of advice from union workers. They are often misguided and think their collective bargaining “rules” are the “law”.

  13. Chronic Lurker*

    As a union officer whose job is to deal with issues people in my workplace are having with management and/or ways management is overstepping their authority, my general impression is that people’s perception of their legal rights is almost always synonymous with what they consider to be “fair.” And that perception of “fairness” varies wildly from person to person.

    In our union, we try to make sure that people are educated not only on their rights under federal and state labor law, but also on their rights under our specific union contract — and once people have been in our workplace for a while, they tend to develop a pretty good understanding of their rights. But when people are new, it can be kind of wild. On the one hand, I’ll have one person ask if the union can do anything about their manager giving them assignments (that are fully within the scope of their job description) that they just don’t like; and then I’ll turn around and find out that a whole group of new hires have been assigned shifts that are longer than allowed under the contract and none of them had any idea that was a thing.

    In general, I find that if something seems reasonable or familiar to people, they tend to assume it’s okay, unless and until you educate them about their rights. And most people, even people who have been working for decades, have never had someone do that.

  14. Mel_05*

    If you’re not sure about something, Google it!

    I did this multiple times working for a small employer. I found the law we would be breaking, explained the situation, and they stopped trying to do whichever illegal thing they wanted to do that month.

    Often they found work arounds so they could still be the worst, but they were in compliance with the law, sooo…

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Unfortunately, things that aren’t actual law are so ingrained in the zeitgeist that they show up on google. Most notably, the “fact” that it’s “illegal” to ask certain questions (marital status, number of children, religion) in job interviews. I didn’t realize it wasn’t actually illegal to ask those questions until I read it here.

      1. Mel_05*

        Sure, I wouldn’t take your answers from a site that isn’t official. But Google is often the quickest way to find the correct government page.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          You would think so, but I just searched for “illegal interview questions” and scrolled through the first six pages of results without seeing a single government site. And all of them were “here are illegal interview questions,” at least as far as you can tell from the preview.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Or you can also often ask your local labor department questions, you don’t have to say “my employer did this.” you can ask them for advice directly about scenarios to see if it’s acceptable practice or what have you.

      This is how most companies who don’t have dedicated HR do, unless they don’t care [plenty of those folks too].

      It’s like how you can even call OSHA and have them do a tour of your facility and give you a no-fault consultation about safety as well. They will help you make sure you’re compliant.

  15. Veryanon*

    I have a law degree and have worked in HR for over 25 years. I do this for a living. Even for me, it’s often difficult to stay on top of employment laws! I subscribe to various professional newsletters and other sources, go to legal update seminars regularly, and there are *still* always things that surprise me. U.S. employment laws are extremely complicated because of the patchwork of federal/state/local laws (that often contradict each other). It’s no wonder that the average Jane or John Doe has no idea what their rights are (and aren’t).

    1. Joielle*

      Employment law and insurance are the two areas where I really feel lucky to be a lawyer and have the time and ability to figure out my rights. If WE find this stuff complicated, how would someone who doesn’t speak English, or doesn’t have internet access, or doesn’t have time to devote to research ever have a chance?? And the consequences of not asserting your rights can be massive! It really gives you perspective.

      1. PotatoEngineer*

        How many times have we heard “your insurance doesn’t cover (X,Y,Z specific detail)”? I just went to my bank to find my insurance documents, and all I can find is “$$$ personal liability coverage”, without any details of what that means. I’ve only ever had to call insurance for auto collisions where both vehicles are moving, which is thankfully *obviously* covered for auto insurance (or obviously *not* covered). I’m not sure what I can do if the insurance company says “we don’t cover that”!

  16. Coffee Owlccountant*

    It touches on so many deeper issues with the US’s educational system, but the farther I get from college, the angrier I get about all the things high school did NOT teach me that somehow I was just supposed to pick up on my own, five years before the invention of YouTube and only two years after Google. Examples include:
    – Rights and lack of rights around employment
    – How federal income tax works
    – How credit works, including what impacts your credit score and what lenders look at to determine creditworthiness
    – Basic life documentation skills: what you have to keep and for how long
    – How to create, manage, and stick to a budget
    – How to register to vote, acquire a passport, find out what your state and local taxes and ordinances are, and generally be an informed citizen

    I knew nothing about any of this until well after college, at which point it was almost too late to save my credit (I did eventually manage that, a solid ten years later). These days, can you Google any and all of this? Yes. Do 17-21 year old young adults know that they SHOULD? Depends on so many societal, economic, and educational factors and the burden is so unfairly distributed.

    I don’t know the answer. I don’t know that there IS an answer, short of resetting the entire country to factory settings and starting again from scratch. It just makes me mad that we graduate so many smart, driven, motivated kids from high school and college who get tripped up by all the extremely important things they don’t know because we never bothered to teach them things like how to read their pay stubs and properly fill out a W-4.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Much of this is taught in my state’s Family and Consumer Sciences classes. Which many students avoid because “it’s just sewing.”

    2. Person from the Resume*

      Some of these seem to me like things your parents should teach you. Some seem like something you might learn in a civics class, if you took a civics class in high school. Where do we draw the line with teaching life skills?

      Like, honestly, cooking is a basic life skill I think everyone should have, but I don’t think time should be taken out of high school curriculum to teach that.

      1. Bostonian*

        Yeah… some of this can be taught by the parents, but not everyone’s parents are good at each of these things, so maybe they shouldn’t be responsible for all of it. Are YOUR parents experts on taxes, employment laws, AND finances? Mine certainly aren’t!

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Then think of it as nutrition, food safety, and culinary trade training.
        You want to know a good way to get down obesity rates? Teach kids healthier eating habits than their parents have.

      3. Jackalope*

        Aren’t basic life skills part of the point of school? We have basic life skills like familiarity with important literature, history, math comprehension, and a knowledge of the world (both the current map and a knowledge of how we got to where we are, i.e, world and national history). But we also have other basic life skills that are important as well, such as creating a budget, balancing a checkbook, knowing how to figure out food prep (having had friends who made it to college without knowing how to boil water, I feel like even ground-level basics need covering), and so on. Coffee Owlccountant mentioned other important things like registering to vote (which honestly could be a one-day thing where all of the students fill out their forms right then and there and then mail them in), learning the levels of govt and how to find the officials representing you, basic employment rights/responsibilities, and so on. We had some classes that covered some of those issues, but not all of them. Having a life skills class, even just a semester or two, can be super helpful.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m still fascinated that people don’t recall remembering income tax in school.

      We were required to take Government and Economics. Which included voting, taxation, budgeting and general other stuff related to economics on a high school level.

      And our school district was pretty garbage level but I learned how to do my taxes and have been doing them personally since starting work at 19.

      They don’t teach you credit because academia survives off destroying your credit from an early age.

      1. LavaLamp*

        We didn’t do taxes or anything in high school although my math teachers would help you file your taxes because they were decent humans. The only life skills I got out of school was. . . how to write a check in 5th grade. And now that its 2020 checks aren’t really used as much as they were when I was in elementary school.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Not taught in anything I took in high school except for history of how/why the system developed, and a few word problems in math class.
        Graduated mid 80s in NYS, in a school that still had Home Ec & Shop & metals hop classes.

    4. Lora*

      Some of us Olds had to learn it back when our sources for learning these things consisted of the local library and Teamsters union hall. I am painfully reminded of how I didn’t know these things either, and hauled around decades of paperwork for years from apartment to apartment, because there was literally no other way to keep documents and who knew when you’d need them again to prove something to someone. I did learn about voting and the various required types of registrations in civics class, and we had cooking, sewing and basic carpentry lessons in middle school (rural East coast, late 1970s – early 1980s). My high school taught budgeting by having our parents grant us a small amount of money to a spending account with the school bookstore: you could go to a little room and buy books, pens/pencils, shirts and sweatshirts with the school logo on type of thing, and to buy things you wrote a “check” from a checkbook that the school issued to you, and the cashier would help you balance the checkbook to make sure you did the math correctly. We also had quite extensive Health Class when it became evident that parents were absolutely not going to address 1) teen pregnancy 2) AIDS (still occasionally called GRID in those days) and 3) eating disorders. These classes were not optional, some parents meowed about that, but you’d be considered some kinda weirdo if your parents pulled you out of class.

      Hoarding paperwork came in handy though, more than once, so I tend to still do that for things like regular financial statements…

    5. Girasol*

      This! We learned so much social science trivia and missed learning things like what it means to vote on a school bond or how to save for retirement. But I am eternally grateful to the social studies teacher who had us all file for our social security cards (back in the day when that wasn’t done for babies) and one day handed us a 1040 form and a fake W2 and walked us through the process. (Okay, at the time I was glad that it meant there wouldn’t be one of his dreaded pop quizzes that day, but that’s another matter.)

  17. Rusty Shackelford*

    Speaking of FMLA, I know of two people whose (different) employers recommended they take FMLA when they needed extended time off for surgery. And both thought their employers were “up to something.” What’s the deal?

    1. Mr. Cajun2core*

      Mine recommends filling out the paper work just in case something happens with the surgery but we can take regular sick leave if we want.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        In both of these cases, FMLA would have been used in conjunction with sick leave. The people indicated they’d be taking X weeks of sick leave and their supervisors or HR people recommended they file for FMLA in addition to that. No unpaid leave involved.

        1. Wren*

          FMLA just means that they can’t fire you for taking the time or reassign you to a crappier job when you get back. It has nothing to do with pay.

        2. Just Jess*

          Smart organizations automatically send FMLA notifications and paperwork after the third day of sick leave. It’s far, far better to proactively send it to an employee than to have the employee claim in retrospect that they didn’t know they might have qualified for FMLA. Smart organizations also retroactively apply approved FMLA and run it in conjunction with sick leave whenever possible.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Some people think that using FMLA or asking for ADA accommodations will earmark them for termination as soon as the company gets a chance.

      I get this with workers comp claims as well. They’d rather hide an injury than report it! I have to make it clear that we’re not firing anyone, we haven’t fired anyone and that’s not a thing we do.

      Lots of people have been burned and heard so many bad stories, they don’t trust their employers to ever look out for their best interest. It’s all a trap.

      I’ve seen it with using sick leave as well. Age old “I never get sick! I never need a sick day!” in a job interview as one of their selling points.

      1. (Former) HR Expat*

        This. I tell my employees that we ask them to fill out the paperwork to protect them. A lot of people don’t understand FMLA, so I explain it to them. I tell them we’re not going to take any adverse action because of FML, but it’s to their benefit to do the paperwork to protect themselves.

  18. Rachel in NYC*

    My favorite thing that people mis-reference is “right to work.” People online will talk about living in a right to work state so their employer can’t [insert blank here.]

    You just sorta want to give them a hug. And at the same time don’t want to burst their bubble cuz I’m sorry, “right to work” is even better named then the Patriot Act (and that basically involved everyone agreeing to give up their civil liberties.)

  19. Asenath*

    I’m not in the US, but I did have a vicarious experience that impressed me mightily with the power of pure stubborness and the ability to look things up. Back when I was an undergraduate students, I and all my friends were holding down assorted part time and summer jobs, as most students in our circle did. One of the ones a friend of mine worked for turned out to be a fly-by-night group that cheated their employees – all young and fairly naive students – out of most of their salary. Most of the students complained but didn’t do anything. My friend complained, and although she also didn’t know what to do initially, checked into the labour laws – no Internet back then, but the information apparently wasn’t hard to find – and laid a formal complaint through the procedures that had been set up by the provincial government. She got a certified check for the money owed to her. I found the story eye-opening. You don’t have to just complain when you’re cheated or treated badly. You can find out what the law is, and sometimes use it even if you can’t afford a lawyer. Nowadays, with the internet, it’s easier than ever to find out just what protections you have on the job.

  20. agnes*

    My experience is that most people think they have more rights than they really do. We are an “at will” and “right to work” state and about the only rights workers in this state have– are those mandated by federal law. People come all the time telling me that the employer “must” offer them a break (Nope) or “cannot” change their schedule”(Nope) or “cannot” change their job description (Nope) or “must” provide paid leave (Nope).

    Workers have become a cost center, rather than being considered as a company asset that helps the company make money. It is unconscionable.

    1. Willik*

      I always wondered about this. My old boss told me I was moving to second shift or I wouldn’t have a job. I felt I didn’t have a choice, and late found out I was the only one told that I had to switch hours to continue working there. When I brought it to HRs attention, they seemed nervous, but then dismissed the situation. I quit a few months after they told me to switch.

      1. agnes*

        well if you belonged to a protected class you might have had some standing to question that; but otherwise no they can do that. The only other option is that you might have had grounds to assert constructive dismissal.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        If they needed you on second shift, they are well within their rights to require you to take the shift.

        HR was probably nervous because it’s always nerve racking to deal with complaints like this, despite it not being being illegal for them to do it.

        It’s not illegal to change schedules. It’s frequently a thing in retail and you can be simply removed from the schedule as well and they can keep you on as an active employee, to force a lot of people to simply quit. Or to change your schedule so you only work one day a week if they wanted to push you out as well.

        Yes, if they find a pattern of them doing this to protected classes, you may have a leg to stand on to prove discrimination but the reality is that it’s not the norm to find this as discrimination.

        It could be that someone complained about you and their response was to move shifts to protect someone’s confidentiality. That happens in some harassment issues. But they should have given you some kind of details about “we have had some conflicts on the first shift and we have to move you to second shift. If that won’t work for you, we will have to terminate employment.”

  21. AthenaC*

    So … I just remembered something. A couple employers ago, I took maternity leave and came back. A few weeks into coming back, I noticed that my bank account balance was a bit lower than I expected. I turned to my cube-mate and asked her – “So, random question – when did we last get paid?” Turns out that I should have been paid almost a week prior.

    I emailed our singular HR lady and asked if she wouldn’t mind looking into this for me. Ten minutes later she came over to my cube, apologizing profusely, and said, “I’ve never forgotten to pay anyone before!!” She asked if I wanted a check cut right away or if we could roll it into the next check. Since I had planned ahead and squirreled away a bunch of cash prior to my maternity leave (i.e. short-term disability paid out at 60%), I was good to wait another week and told her so.

    Sounds like it may have been illegal to put it off like that, but of course it was so long ago by this point.

    1. Chinook*

      Yes and no. She gave you the option to take the check that day and you declined. If she hadn’t offered or even refused the option, then that would be illegal.

      1. Elsajeni*

        How sure are you of that? This is another area where people tend to have some misconceptions — thinking that, because a law or regulation exists to protect them, surely they can make the decision to waive that protection, when in fact some of those regulations say that not only can your employer not make you do XYZ (wait an extra week for your paycheck, skip breaks or lunches, work unpaid overtime, etc.), they cannot allow you to do XYZ, even if you offer to or swear up and down that it would actually be more convenient for you.

    2. Eva Luna*

      Many years ago, I took a week off for surgery and recovery. I came back and dutifully handed in to HR the letter from my doctor clearing me to return to work, started working, and submitted daily time sheets like normal. Except when payday rolled around, I didn’t get paid. Inquiries revealed that HR had not recorded properly that I had been released to return to work by my doctor, so they decided I hadn’t actually returned to work…in spite of my daily time sheet submission, complete with overtime.

      After I raised an appropriate amount of hell (I didn’t make much back then, and I needed that money to pay rent!), a check was prepared and Fedexed to me from the payroll office in another state. No apology was forthcoming from HR.

      The kicker? My employer was a gigantic accounting and consulting company!

  22. introverted af*

    I had to deal with some of this at my last job – we were changing locations in town so we were going to be changing some procedures and I was technically responsible for managing the part timers and volunteers there. We were discussing some things as a staff and one of the part timers kept insisting that our state required breaks every so often and it was really frustrating that our executive director didn’t want me to tell her no, our state doesn’t require employers to offer breaks. Of course that’s shitty and we wanted to be able to provide some kind of break, and were trying to find a way to do that, but if we couldn’t take a break on any given day due to scheduling, we weren’t violating any laws. She was rightfully pretty perturbed by that and I was too. It’s made me look a lot closer at what is legal or not.

  23. roundround*

    It is important to know your rights but also to advise people of the consequences of enforcing their rights. I get very frustrated when people give advice like ‘just go to your boss and say your rights are x y and z.’

    It doesn’t always work that way. In low wage industries it is common to be fired if you enforce your rights and the response from bosses is basically ‘so sue me.’ Then you’re left with no job, no wages and no references while you go through the process of getting justice. Even if you win there can still be up to over a year lag in time between being illegally fired and getting justice or compensation.

    People who are pursuing their rights need to be advised to have savings a plan for what they will do if they get fired over it. Don’t give people the impression they can just waltz into their boss and say ‘these are my rights!’ and the boss is just going to go ‘omg! of course!” In dreamland.

  24. roundround*

    And the one that really gets me is discrimination laws. Everyone has imaginary ideas of what illegal discrimination is. Perfectly legal and valid ways to sort out applicants is often declared ‘illegal’ by people put out by the process.

    Some people you have to wonder on what basis they would allow an employer to choose to hire someone. I just saw a thread on another site from college students complaining that using grades in hiring was discrimination.

  25. Just Another Manic Millie*

    “Everyone has imaginary ideas of what illegal discrimination is.”

    You’re absolutely right. During a job interview, I was asked if I was Jewish. I snapped, “What does that have to do with the job?” as I got up and left. At the time, I thought that the interviewer was not allowed to ask me that question. Many years later, I found out from Alison that it is legal for an interviewer to ask applicants about their religion. Live and learn.

    1. roundround*

      To be fair to you I don’t think they should be allowed to ask that question! That’s a reasonable thing to think you should be protected from being asked.

      My main issue is people who add ‘discrimination’ to things that are a stretch. Like ‘they discriminated against me because I didn’t have all the requirements for the job.’

    2. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      It’s legal for them to ask, but not to use the information. But even if they could use the information, snapping “what does that have to do with the job?” and leaving would have been a reasonable choice, because it has nothing to do with the job and there’s a long history of discrimination there. (Hell, “Are you a Red Sox fan?” is a legal question, but irrelevant to very few jobs.)

  26. DanielaKnowYourRightsGal*

    I used to work at a restaurant and we had busser. We were supposed to tip out our bussers from our tips. I was tired of sharing my hard earned money with somebody who didn’t do anything or had to be told everything. I was talked to about it and I had the following trivia about tips: It’s part of your pay. You do not have to share it with anybody except if you are located in California. Now, did that make me popular with the lazy bussers? No. But I was very popular with the industrious busser cause I shared very well with them. Know your rights!

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is why I always tip in cash, so the server can make the choice themselves.

      I was enraged when I worked about 15 minutes doing books for a restaurant. They forced a tip share with all credit card receipts. I saw people lose money that way, it made me angry AF and it wasn’t even my money.

      But it’s not just California. Oregon and Washington also don’t have servers wages, so it’s not classified as part of your pay.

      I have heard there are rules in place where they make you tip out management because owners would steal tips from folks.

  27. Heffalump*

    How true that it’s not illegal for an employer to be a jerk. I once worked for a sole proprietor who liked to say, “It’s my company, and if people don’t like the way I talk to them, they can go to work somewhere else.” I took him up on it.

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