Workplace Rights You Might Not Know You Have

by JR Thorpe
Group of business people meeting at the restaurant.
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Most of us are familiar with the basics of America's workplace laws: you have to get paid for what you do, and you can't be discriminated against on the basis of religion, gender, race or age (though transgender and LGBT legal protections remain on the state, rather than the federal, level, and thus differ from place to place, which is total BS). But the intricacies of workplace law can be more dense than you might have thought, and knowledge of your workplace rights can prove very useful if you find yourself in a jam: needing to ask for accommodations because of a recently diagnosed disability, for example, or in the uncomfortable position of blowing the whistle on something deeply problematic in your company or industry. And what we think is a legal right or a forbidden act may actually not be; there is, for example, no real federal law regarding the provision of lunch breaks on the job, but state ones can be very strict and severe, as in California. Knowledge is power.

The time where a bit of legal knowledge comes in handy is often a crunch point: a crisis, a punishment, a distressing medical diagnosis, or something else. If your employer doesn't know what to do, or behaves improperly, it's a damn good idea to know exactly what their duties towards employees are, what your legal status is, and what your choices are when it comes to fixing the situation. It's often helpful to know what the laws are as soon as possible, though you don't need to come in all guns blazing with specific legal names and jargon if you're still at the negotiating stage.

Here are three workplace rights you might not know you have — but absolutely should.

If You Have An Invisible Disability, You Deserve "Reasonable Accommodations"

Contrary to what you might believe, employers under American employer law are actually required to make concessions and accommodations for disabilities of any kind, whether they're visible or not. According to the US Department of Labor, "covered employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified job applicants and employees with disabilities. In the employment context, a reasonable accommodation is defined as any change or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things usually are done that would allow an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace."

The disabilities covered by this definition are, obviously, very diverse. The Job Accommodation Network lists fibromyalgia, depression, PTSD, chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, and sleep and eating disorders as possible reasons for an employer to give you accommodations, among others. Just because a disability isn't immediately obvious doesn't mean it's not covered by the law, but it does mean that, under the American Disability Act, employers are allowed to request medical documentation "to establish that the employee has an ADA disability, to show that the employee needs the requested accommodation, and to help determine effective accommodation options."

There's a bit of interesting back-and-forth in what accommodations an employer actually has to provide for you; they don't have to give you anything that will cause them "undue hardship," or "personal use" items that could help you at home as well as at work. But suggested legal accommodations for people with chronic, invisible illnesses can include everything from flexible scheduling to temperature changes in the office to longer breaks to the ability to work from home and time during work hours to talk to your doctor. Basically, if it won't affect your productivity or cost them anything unreasonable, they probably have to accommodate you.

If you're an employer and can' figure out what the rules are, the Job Accommodation Network poses three different questions: Does the employee have an impairment? Does the impairment impact a major life activity (which includes everything from performing manual taste to "thinking, communicating, interacting with others" or bodily functions)? And does the impairment substantially limit the life activity? If you feel like you qualify for a disabled status with your employer, make sure you know these questions and how to answer them.

You Are Allowed To Talk About Your Salary With Coworkers

Yes, you are allowed to discuss your salary with other workers and compare — even if your company has rules on the books prohibiting it. The reason? The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) explicitly protects your right to do it. "Many employers have policies against this anyway," Alison Green from Ask A Manager told US News, "but these policies violate the law."

It's an issue that's remained frustratingly opaque for many workers in the United States. NPR in 2014 explored why President Obama signed an executive order explicitly prohibiting federal contractors from punishing workers for talking about their pay with one another; the "pay secrecy" policies of many workplaces, they explained at the time, have been illegal for over 80 years. The NLRA was signed back in 1935, and gives all employees the right to do "concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." And that means comparing salaries, though not just complaining about them. This doesn't apply if you're actually in HR and know private information about peoples' financials, because that's also illegal, but it's generally applicable to anybody who works in the private sector and isn't a supervisor.

If You're Blowing The Whistle, You Shouldn't Be Punished For It

If you blow the whistle on something happening in your workplace, there are significant protections to prevent your employer from punishing you for it. This isn't the modern idea of how whistleblowing works at all, but the Department of Labor lays it out clearly: while they're not allowed to make threats, fire, or intimate you, they're also not allowed to demote you, deny you a promotion or benefits, fail to rehire you, or punish you in any way for your work. They have a long list of statues preventing employer discrimination against whistleblowers in many different fields, from teaching to the postal service, and exactly what you have to do to file a claim against them for doing it. These can get labyrinthine: you usually have a set amount of time to file, and what you may get as compensation depends on your industry and specific case.

One of the interesting exceptions to this is the intelligence community; a bunch of different laws have been signed to protect whistleblowers in places like the FBI and CIA, but contractors (like Edward Snowden, for example) are still unprotected, because they don't count as "employees." There's a new law currently being formulated, the FBI Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, to give FBI whistleblowers more help if they're dismissed or punished because they identify shady shenanigans, but it's still in the pipeline. If you work in national intelligence, check very carefully about what you can do and where you can go before you blow the whistle on anybody.

The good thing about workplace rights? There's lots of free information out there for people with no law degree, from the Department of Labor's own website to specific advice groups focused on problems in particular areas. If you think you've got a problem, go to the law and an expert who might be able to help.

Images: RgStudio/E+/Getty Images; Giphy