Special Report

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

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The statutory rights and protections of workers in the United States have evolved considerably over the country’s history. From child labor restrictions to a federally mandated minimum wage, many of these laws that we now take for granted were fought hard for. While some legislation designed to regulate the workplace are well known, others — many of significant importance — are less so.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed labor laws catalogued by the Department of Labor and consulted news reports to identify some of the lesser known laws, rights, and protections employees in the United States are entitled to. This list is for general information purposes only.

The laws on this list are designed to protect workers from workplace accidents and hazards, offer them recourse for unfair treatment, and provide them with a certain standard of privacy. However, these laws generally represent a bare minimum set of standards and do not protect against all behaviors or circumstances that some employees may find objectionable. As a result, it is important that American workers are discerning when choosing where to work, as labor laws do not necessarily offer protections from an unkind manager or overbearing boss. This is the American company with the worst reputation

Many labor standards that are now common practice, such as the eight-hour workday, were fought for by labor unions. Union strikes throughout U.S. history have been instrumental in shaping policy related to workers’ rights. However, union participation has been declining for years in the United States, along with union influence. Currently, 10.8% of American workers belong to a union, down from over 20% in the early 1980s. Here is a look at the states with the strongest and weakest unions.

Click here to see 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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5. Employee Polygraph Protection Act

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act forbids most employers from using lie detectors on employees or prospective employees. Violation of the act, which can include even inquiring about the results of a previous lie detector test or disclosing information obtained during a test, exposes employers to a maximum monetary penalty of $21,663.

The law does, however, allow for polygraph testing under certain circumstances, including in the hiring process of prospective employees at federal agencies such as the FBI.

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6. Re-employment for military personnel

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act guarantees the right of military personnel to be reemployed by the company they worked at when they joined the service The rule applies to both active-duty and reserve personnel. Upon reemployment, personnel are entitled to receive the seniority and compensation that they would have reached had they not joined the military. Employers are also obligated to take action to accommodate any injury their employee may have sustained in the service.

Monetary penalties for violation of these laws typically compensate those affected for lost pay, while also reimbursing them for legal fees and litigation costs.

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7. Hostile workplace protections

American workers are legally protected from being subjugated to a hostile work environment.

An illegal hostile working environment is one in which an employee is specifically targeted for their race, age, sex, religion, or a disability, and the hostility is either severe or pervasive. Importantly, a hostile work environment in which general harassment occurs, such as bad and unkind managers or employees, is not necessarily illegal.

Workers who are subjected to a hostile work environment that meets the threshold of being illegal should first ask the offender to stop. If the illegal behavior does not stop, they should document offences and escalate to the Human Resources Department. If no further action is taken, workers should seek legal representation.

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8. Concerted activity

Concerted activity is the National Labor Relations Board’s term for when two or more employees talk to each other about their workplace environment. While employers may not want their workers discussing their salary or benefits with their coworkers, they have no legal means to stop them or recourse if they do. Concerted activity laws also allow employees to lawfully circulate a petition for any number of causes, including demanding better hours or safer conditions.

It is important to note, however, that workers may lose these protections if they say something egregiously offensive or knowingly false or by publicly disparaging their organization’s products or services.

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9. Free speech protections

The first amendment to the constitution protects Americans’ right to freedom of speech. Those rights, however, do not carry over to the workplace. Private employers are entitled to act against their workers for certain things that they may say or write.

It is important to note that some states have passed worker free speech protection rights. In Connecticut, for example, speech is protected provided that it does not interfere with an employee’s performance or relationship with his or her employer. Additionally, nationwide, if the worker’s speech is about employee rights over collective bargaining, that speech is protected.

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10. Workplace safety

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, private sector workers as well as some in the public sector are entitled to a safe and healthful working environment. Workers are protected from workplace hazards — such as toxic chemical exposure, damaging noise, and unsanitary conditions — through a set of standards related to protective gear, education, and training.

These laws are enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Department of Labor. Employers can face a maximum penalty of $13,653 per violation, and an additional daily fine of up to $13,653 for failure to comply. Willful or repeated violations can result in a maximum fine of $136,532 per violation.

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11. Rights for workers with disabilities

In the United States, people with disabilities cannot be discriminated against at work for their disability if they are capable of doing the job. Forms of discrimination include derogatory remarks, refusal to hire or promote, demands for unnecessary information regarding the disability.

Employers are also obligated to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees, and disabled persons are not obligated to disclose any disability that may require accommodation prior to being hired. It is important to note that these protections do not apply to businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

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12. Break time for nursing mothers

Employers in the United States are required by law to provide mothers with enough break time to express breast milk for their nursing child. In addition, employers must provide their workers with a private place in which to nurse other than a bathroom.

These protections for working new mothers are covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA also mandates the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and rules regarding overtime pay.

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13. Equal rights for foreign workers

H-1B workers are foreign nationals, who, with an advanced education and a specialized skill set, are granted permission to work in the United States. These workers are entitled to the same compensation as American workers who perform a similar function in their organization. Additionally, employers can not require these workers to pay for expenses related to obtaining the labor certification, petition filing fees, or employer’s attorneys’ fees or agent fees.

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14. Workplace injury protections

Americans who are injured on the job are entitled to a number of protections. After notifying a supervisor of a workplace injury, the employer’s insurance company must pay for any and all reasonable and necessary medical care. Injured workers may also be entitled to workers’ compensation, disability, or vocational rehabilitation benefits. These payouts allow injured workers to keep a steady income while unable to work due to an injury.

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