What Are Employee Rights in the Workplace? - Law & Concept

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  • 0:02 What Are Employee Rights?
  • 1:39 Laws Prohibiting…
  • 2:55 Other Statutory Protections
  • 4:46 Public Policy Protections
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea Rea

Andrea is a practicing attorney and MBA with 15 years experience in health care administration, litigation and business law.

Whether you work for a large multinational corporation or a small mom and pop shop, you have certain rights at work that are protected by law. Learn what conduct is protected in the workplace and when it's illegal for employers to fire an employee in this lesson.

What Are Employee Rights?

A right is the ability to legally engage in behavior that is protected by law or social sanction, free from interference by others. Employees have certain rights that cannot be interfered with by employers, regardless of their position in the company or the size of the employer. Employee rights can be protected by federal or state law, by public policy, or by contract.

The law generally presumes that private sector employees are employed at will. The employment-at-will doctrine means that both employer and employee can end the employment relationship at any time for any reason, unless there's contract between the employer and employee that provides otherwise. Since only a small percentage of the American labor force works under an employment contract, the majority of workers are employees at will. This means that your employer has the right to terminate your employment at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, so long as the reason isn't illegal. This is important because many people mistakenly believe that they can't be fired without just cause. On the other hand, an employee can quit a job for any reason at any time and doesn't have to give a reason.

There are important limitations to the employment-at-will doctrine that protect employees. These limits generally fall into three categories: statutory rights, contractual rights, and public policy exceptions. Statutory rights are those rights specifically protected by state or federal law. Perhaps the most important protections for employees are the many laws prohibiting discrimination and other forms of wrongful discharge.

Laws Prohibiting Discrimination

Federal laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and various state laws outlaw discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, age, handicap, pregnancy, or any other protected status. Laws also protect employees from retaliation for complaining about discrimination, filing a charge of discrimination, or participating in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Most recently, Congress enacted the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or job applicants because of genetic information. Genetic information includes information about the genetic tests of an individual and the individual's family members, as well as information about any disease, disorder, or condition of an individual's family members.

An employee who feels they were a victim of discrimination in violation of these laws at any stage of the employment relationship can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which can investigate claims, settle disputes, or file a lawsuit against the employer on the employee's behalf.

Other Statutory Protections

Another important statutory right for employees is protection from unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. Various federal and state laws exist to protect workers from the risk of accidental injury, death, or disease in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes and enforces safety standards governing many aspects of the workplace, such as structural stability, protective equipment requirements for employees, and exposure to hazardous substances.

State workers' compensation laws provide an administrative procedure for compensating workers injured on the job. Instead of suing his or her employer, an injured worker files a claim for workers' compensation benefits. An injured worker can usually get workers' compensation benefits regardless of who was at fault for the injury. However, in exchange for receiving benefits, the employee often gives up the right to sue the employer for the same injury.

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