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Employment Laws You Should Know Before Taking a Job

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All employees have basic rights. We can’t be chained to our desks or held as indentured servants, for example. But do we actually know enough when it comes to the federal laws that govern our workplaces? You may have rights you didn’t know you had, particularly when it comes to getting hired.

There are at least a dozen federal laws covering how employers in the U.S. must treat their employees. These laws include workplace safety, harassment, discrimination, minimum pay standards, work hours and who can have time off without losing their job. And while most employers do their best to follow the law, some end up breaking it either by stepping over into a gray area or being ignorant of what the laws really mean.

Keep in mind that what you read here is not legal advice, but rather a basic overview of what your employee rights are:

Discrimination

Something every job applicant should know during the interview process is what legally constitutes discrimination in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to refuse to hire a person on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. Also the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), added as an amendment to Title VII, states that an employer can’t refuse to hire a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Other acts protecting specific groups from discrimination include:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that makes it illegal for employers not to hire a qualified person with a disability and requires them to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of qualified employees
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), stating that employers can’t discriminate against people over the age of 40 or who are close to retirement
  • The recent Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against a person because of genetic information.

What this means to you is that, as you interview, know that you do not have to answer questions about your age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or whether or not you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. And if you have a disability, you have just as much of a chance at that job as anyone else.

Compensation and Work Time

Before you accept a job offer, make sure you are being asked to work fair hours for fair pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides standards for wages and overtime pay that cover businesses in the public and private sectors. This is the law that sets the minimum wage for workers. Any state can set its own minimum wage and labor standards above the FLSA, but those standards cannot be less than the minimums prescribed by the federal law.

This law states the minimum amount of money a non-exempt worker must be paid (here’s a list of what makes an employee exempt under the FLSA), as well as requiring that non-exempt workers be paid overtime: a minimum of one-and-a-half times their wage for any work done beyond 40 hours in a week. The FLSA does not, however, limit the number of hours a person can work in a week, nor does it require employers to allow breaks. (Most states have their own laws about breaks during work.) This act also dictates the amount of time a person aged 16 or under can work in a week.

Privacy

Privacy in the workplace is a very touchy subject with a lot of gray areas. Once you’re on the job your privacy is limited, but you do still have rights. Of course, when you’re in the process of applying for a job, you’re under a different kind of scrutiny and the lines of privacy can easily be crossed. You need to know what your rights are and what rights employers have.

For example, employers can require you to take a drug test before offering you employment. In fact, some employers, especially those for whom safety is a major concern, are required by law to perform drug tests. While employers are permitted to do drug tests, the courts recognize that this kind of testing can infringe on a person’s right to privacy. First of all, you cannot be forced to take a drug test. But an employer can require you to take the test as a condition of your employment. That means you are allowed to refuse the test, but then they are allowed to refuse to hire you.

On the other hand, if a drug test reveals legally prescribed medications that you are taking due to a disability, you could be protected under the ADA. Also, if a company is only testing certain groups or types of applicants, it could be guilty of discrimination. If the test is administered improperly—if you’re asked to urinate or disrobe in front of someone, for instance—that could be considered an invasion of privacy in a court of law.

Another privacy issue is the recent rise in credit checks. More and more, employers are doing background credit checks and refusing to hire applicants who have bad credit. There are no federal laws protecting workers from having their credit reports used as employment criteria, but at least nine states have laws on the books that limit their use. You should check the laws in your state before you hit the pavement or give up on that job you thought you had in the bag. Your privacy may have been violated in the process of not getting hired.

Photo by Aaron Savage
Photo by Aaron Savage
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