Special Report

The Labor Laws Your Boss Doesn't Want You to Know About

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1. Whistleblower protections

Workers who report illegal actions by their employer are protected under a series of whistleblower protection laws. Whistleblowers can report on a wide range of incidents, such as sexual harassment, violation of pollution laws, or fraudulent accounting practices, so long as such complaints are in good faith. They can report the violations either to their employer or a federal agency. If no wrongdoing is found to have occurred, the whistleblower is legally protected from retaliation from his or her employer.

Whistleblowers have 30 days to report any retaliation by their employer to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Famous whistleblower cases in the U.S. include an Enron executive who sent a memo to the CEO detailing the company’s illegal use of accounting loopholes and shell corporations and a tobacco executive who went to the press to expose his company’s complicity in including carcinogenic and addictive additives in its products.

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2. Advanced notice of impending layoffs

Under certain conditions, workers are entitled to written notice of a plant closure or mass layoffs at least 60 days before they take effect. If an employer fails to provide this information employees may be entitled to as much as 60 days of back pay and benefits. It is important to note, however, that these rights apply only to private sector businesses with at least 100 full-time workers, and that striking, temporary, or government workers are not protected.

This law went into effect in February 1989 following the passage of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, in 1988.

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3. Genetic information privacy

It is illegal for employers with 15 or more employees to use genetic information of applicants or workers in the process of making hiring or employment decisions. Genetic information can include information about diseases, disorders, or family medical history or any other information that might suggest an individual is at an increased risk of having a health condition.

Such actions, which can include using genetic information to harass or inform decisions related to promotions, hiring, firing, training, benefits, or job assignments, have been outlawed on the grounds of discrimination since November 2009.

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4. Equal pay for equal work

It is illegal for employers to compensate male and female employees who perform substantially similar functions differently. The law, known as the Equal Pay Act, guarantees equal pay — including benefits — for equal work, even if the titles of the employees in question are different. To correct for inequity in pay and benefits employers are not allowed to reduce compensation.

Despite the EPA and other similar legislation, there is still a considerable gender pay gap in the United States. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, women earned 84% of what men earned in 2020.

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5. Entitlement to family and medical leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act, which passed in 1993, mandates that employers with 50 or more workers allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave of absence to eligible employees for the birth or adoption of a child. It also provides leave time for the serious illness of an employee, a spouse, child, or parent. Workers are also protected by the law for conditions such as stress or anxiety.

In order to be eligible for FMLA protections, workers need to have been with their employer for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours over the most recent 12-month period.

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