Know Your Rights

Know Your Rights

You Can Be Fired At Any Time, For Any Reason, Or For No Reason At All.

So, What Are Our Rights As Employees Under United States Law?

We don’t have too many. If a company has at least 15 employees (20 for age claims), we have just one basic right, and that one basic protected right is the right not to be discriminated against. That’s it. In other words, my boss can bully me and treat me like dirt, actually, and that’s not illegal. Or you can be fired during the company Christmas party, and for no particular reason, and as Serge the security guard escorts you while you clean out your desk before he takes you on a humiliating perp walk out of the building in front of everyone while you unsuccessfully try to contain your emotions, that’s not illegal, either.

Unless you’re one of the fortunate few to work under a binding personal services contract, or you’re covered by a collective contract through membership in a union, you are an employee-at-will, as more than 90% of us are, and that means you can be fired at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.

That one protected right must involve some form of discrimination, a situation where you feel that you are being treated differently at work because you are a woman (sexist work environment, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and gender pay disparity claims), or you are being treated differently because of your color, age, or disability, national origin, among others.

Under the main applicable law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and how the courts have interpreted it over the years, if you feel that you are being treated differently at work to your detriment, than you must notify your employer about it so they can look into your concerns and respond accordingly. In other words, if the terms or the conditions of your employment feel degraded to you, and the reason you feel degraded or diminished is because of who you are as a woman, or because of who you are as a person of color, for just two examples of violations due to protected statuses, than you must complain to the powers that be in your company, most typically the human resource department, but it could be a complaint to anyone high enough up in the management or corporate structure to be responsible for responding to a civil rights complaint.

By documenting your concerns regarding the unfair and illicit treatment you have been experiencing, the company must then investigate your complaint regarding the unwelcome sexual energy you’re suffering in whatever form it may be taking, for example, or the backlash you’re experiencing when your manager first learned that you were pregnant and would be out on maternity leave during the company’s busy season, or the problems that cropped up out of the blue when you returned from maternity leave—whatever your grievance is related to disparate treatment (another term for discrimination)—you must complain in writing to your employer so that they can investigate your complaint and correct the situation.

If your company does not correct the situation, if they do nothing to investigate, or if they do too little, too late, or if they treat even worse just because you filed the complaint, than that response is retaliatory, and retaliation is illegal under federal and state anti-discrimination laws and retaliation is often a much stronger claim than the underlying discrimination claim, so always formally complain in writing so you’ll have proof—a paper trail, so to speak—that your company knew about your complaint and did not promptly investigate, or did not resolve it properly, or knew about your complaint and fired you after you complained, in retaliation for having the audacity to seek workplace fairness and justice.

What if our employer doesn’t have 15 employees, or 20 for age claims, or 50 employees to qualify for the FMLA then what? Do we have any protections at all?

Yes, and many us of have even more protections under our own state or city’s laws. All 50 states (and many cities) have some kind of anti-discrimination, or “human rights” laws that govern workplace hostility and differential treatment, and most of these laws require less employees than federal law does to qualify for coverage. For example, in New York, where this law firm is located, both the NY state and NY city discrimination protections only require the company to employ 4 people for an employee to qualify for coverage, and both of these laws, but particularly the city statute, are far more employee-friendly and powerful in terms of the remedies one can obtain in contrast to federal law.

If and when you reach a dead end with your employer after doing your best to resolve these serious workplace issues by allowing the company to do the right thing and correct the illegal unfairness you’re experiencing, you should consult with an employee rights or employment discrimination attorney before filing a charge of discrimination with the US EEOC or with your state’s anti-workplace discrimination agency, because such a filing may not be in your best strategic interest, so contact a qualified attorney before making such an important decision. Most attorneys practicing civil rights law for employees provide free consultations, as we do, so make the call and educate yourself before you commit to a administrative agency filing that may limit your ability to pursue your claims against your employer in court at a later time, so contact us, or the National Employment Lawyers Association, or your local bar association for a referral to an employee rights lawyer near you. And remember, whatever else you do while dealing with illegal workplace hostility and discrimination, don’t quit!

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Deborah O’Rell, Client Advocate

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