All The Ways Your Boss May Be (Illegally) Screwing You Over
It’s a tough time to be a worker in America; there’s no telling what the future holds right now, plus the present is scary enough. And, like death and taxes, one of life’s inevitable bummers for those who work for a living is the fact that, no matter how nice or progressive they may seem, your boss doesn’t always have your best interests in mind. Not only that, they’re often willing to use the law—or their employees’ lack of understanding of it—to screw you over. Remember, more oftentimes than none, a boss’s main goal is to serve their own interests and protect the company’s coffers.
For management, workers’ rights generally fall much further down the totem pole than boosting sales and inflating executive salaries. So when workers take matters into their own hands and try to organize or join a union, the boss will often do whatever they can to put a damper on their efforts. The same goes for much smaller acts of workplace solidarity, too, like sharing salary numbers or exchanging information about a manager’s harmful behavior. But, thanks to centuries of struggle on the part of the labor movement and a few very significant pieces of legislation, you do have a number of legal protections — and you may not even know about them.
Your boss can’t keep you from talking to colleagues about salary.
Did you know that it is perfectly legal to talk about pay with your coworkers and that it is actually illegal for your boss to punish you for doing so? Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), management cannot discourage workers from discussing their salaries or working conditions. The law was passed back in 1935 during the New Deal era and was intended to encourage workers to form unions—and shield them from management retaliation. While money can sometimes feel like an awkward subject, pay transparency is an extremely useful tool in combating discrimination and pay inequity in the workplace. Shining a light on discrepancies in pay between workers of various genders or races (for example, comparing the salaries of a white man and a Black woman with the same job title to see how well an employer is sticking to federal equal pay guidelines) can provide ammunition for you to force management to address and rectify the problem.
Yes, you’re allowed to talk about — and form — unions.
The NLRA also protects workers’ rights to unionize, which is another subject bosses really don’t like to see their employees discussing. Unfortunately for them, it’s totally legal for workers to organize or join unions—and it is illegal for employers to interfere in any step of the process or to actively try and discourage their employees from unionizing (a practice called union-busting.)
It’s illegal for you to be fired or punished in any way for talking about unions, forming a union, joining a union, or engaging in collective bargaining at work via a union. However, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution when doing so, though. Just because union-busting is illegal doesn’t mean upper management still won’t try to get away with it. That’s why it’s also important to know your rights as a worker and be ready to advocate for yourself and your coworkers if a manager steps out of line.
If tips aren’t cutting it, your employer is required to pay you more.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is another classic labor law that still comes in handy today, particularly around issues like overtime and wages. The FLSA established a federal minimum wage, which currently stands at a paltry $7.25 per hour, as well a subminimum wage for tipped workers like bartenders and food servers. The legal language is quite clear, but some managers will still try to take advantage and hope you don’t notice.
If your tips don’t add up to a $7.25 hourly wage, your employer is required to make up for the difference.
For instance, did you know that if you’re receiving a subminimum wage (currently $2.13 per hour) and the addition of your tips doesn’t add up to a $7.25 hourly wage, your boss is supposed to make up for the difference? Keep that in mind next time you’re having a slow night. Wage theft is a massive problem within the restaurant and hospitality industry, but the law is on your side here.
You’re allowed to take 12 weeks of parental leave.
While the U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that does not mandate paid parental leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does offer some protection to workers who become pregnant. Under this 1993 law, employers who employ 50 or more workers are required to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers to give birth or adopt a child. The FMLA also requires them to make the same allowance for workers who need to take time off to deal with the serious illness of a family member or themselves. While this doesn’t mean they have to pay you (and that in itself is a huge issue), at the very least, the option to take time off without losing your job is legally protected. As a global pandemic continues to rage, being aware of laws like the FMLA is especially important.
An employer can’t ask how old you are, whether you plan to have kids, or what your gender or sexual orientation is.
And before you even walk into the building as a brand-new employee, there are many other management red flags that you have the legal right to avoid. During a job interview, the interviewer must adhere to a strict set of rules, thanks to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces civil rights laws like Title IX (which forbids employers from discriminating against workers “on the basis of sex.”)
Because of anti-discrimination laws, a prospective employer cannot legally ask your age, your race, your marital status, your religion, your country of origin, your disability status, or whether you have children or plan to have them, eventually. They are also not allowed to ask about your gender or sexual orientation; the Supreme Court finally extended overdue federal protections to LGBTQ workers back in June.
An interviewer can’t ask about your current salary.
On top of salary and wage discretion, some states are also prohibited from asking about your arrest record. Not to mention, under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which recognizes alcoholism as a protected disability, they also cannot ask whether or not you drink alcohol, or ask you to submit to a medical examination. An interviewer also cannot ask about your current salary—though you are free to tell them yourself during wage negotiations! And while it probably won’t come up, it’s nice to know that it’s also illegal for an employer to ask an employee to take a lie detector test.
Ultimately, it’s up to workers to educate ourselves on these legal protections, because the bosses sure aren’t going to volunteer this information. As the old adage goes, knowledge is power, and the more of it you possess, the better positioned you will be to stand up for your fellow workers—and yourself—if and when the time comes.
Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and organizer whose work on labor, politics, and culture has appeared in a number of publications, including The New Republic, Teen Vogue, Washington Post, Noisey, VICE, NYT, and more. Kim grew up deep in the South Jersey Pine Barrens, and currently lives in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter: @grimkim
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