When push comes to shove, no amount of “internal dispute resolution” can fix certain workplace injustices. Air your grievances too loudly, even through the proper channels, and you could be looking at a hasty dismissal (which might be illegal, but we’ll get to that in our “Retaliation” section). And when your boss is the problem, they’re probably not the person to reach out to for a solution.
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Sometimes the only avenue left for an employee is through a formal lawsuit. But America’s labor laws are relatively generous to employers, and kind of stingy when it comes to protections for actual workers.
Four Things You Can Sue Your Employer Over
You can sue just about anyone for just about anything, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win – or even make it to court. Here’s everything you need to know about federal labor laws, including which lawsuits they allow.
1. Federal Wage & Hour Violations
Now, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and most workers are entitled to overtime for any hours worked over 40 in a week. The Act protects the vast majority of employees in the US, but not all. To learn if you’re covered, click here.
But there’s another thing the FLSA entitles most employees to: filing a civil lawsuit. If your right to the minimum wage or overtime pay has been violated, you are entitled to pursue your employer in court.
According to federal law, “harassment” is any “unwelcome conduct” based on an employee’s sex (this includes pregnancy), age, religion, race, color, national origin or disability. Some states also have laws that protect workers who are discriminated against because of their gender identity, but there’s no federal law that makes this explicit yet.
Those qualities are considered “protected classes,” aspects of personal identity that are off-limits when it comes to discrimination. Aspects of an employee like their experience aren’t protected in the same way, since employers have to take experience into account in making hiring decisions.
What Does Illegal Harassment Look Like?
Harassment is illegal when “enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.” This is sometimes called “quid pro quo” harassment; when an employee is forced to submit to harassment because rejecting it would mean losing their job, not getting an earned promotion or not receiving their wages. Sexual harassment of this type is most common.
Otherwise, harassment has to be ongoing to be illegal, continuous enough to create a work environment that reasonable people would consider hostile, intimidating or offensive. Of course, some isolated incidents will be so awful that no one would question their impact on the workplace.
So I Can File A Lawsuit Now?
Before you can file a lawsuit for harassment, you have to file something called an “administrative charge” with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That’s a federal agency, and there are also state agencies who accept administrative charges.
Those agencies will notify your employer that a complaint has been made. They may investigate or ask you and your employer to enter mediation proceedings. If other avenues of dispute resolution have been exhausted, the agency will send you a “right to sue” letter. Now you can file a lawsuit.
When employers make decisions based on an employee’s race, color, age, gender, sex, national origin or disability, they’ve broken federal law. This is called “discrimination,” because they’re singling someone out and treating them differently than other people for an unacceptable reason. Having a drug screening policy that only requires black employees to actually take drug tests is an example.
Hidden Injustice: Disparate Impact Discrimination
Sometimes, apparently “neutral” work policies actually impact employees in a certain protected class more than others. That’s called “disparate impact” and it’s illegal, too. If a police department has a height requirement, say 5 foot 6, for applicants, their unfairly discriminating against female applicants who average 5 foot 4. That might not be illegal for other occupations, if an employer can make a good case for why height is necessary to performing the work.
Before filing a discrimination lawsuit, you’ll have to file a charge with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission first.
Once you’ve opposed discrimination in the workplace or filed an administrative charge, your employer isn’t allowed to “retaliate.” They can’t fire, demote or harass you because you spoke out.
If they do, you can file a lawsuit.
Who Can Help?
If you feel as though your employer’s actions have somehow harmed you, you’ll need a strong basis in the Department of Labor’s main protections before moving forward. That’s what WageAdvocates offers: experienced unpaid overtime lawyers with a thorough understanding of the law and a strong dedication to protecting workers like you.
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