As an attorney who has and does represent employees in actions where they have been treated unfairly by their employers, I thought it would be nice to do a basic overview of employment law. Obviously, our site is focused on finding working environments that are conducive to a happy work life. An employer who fails to comply with basic employment law concepts would not be a good working environment.
In general, most employees in the U.S. are “at will” unless they have a specific employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement (usually done between union members and their employers). The term “at will” means that the employer can terminate, demote or take other adverse actions against an employee even if they are “unfair” so long as the actions or motivations behind them are not prohibited by law. Prohibitions on certain actions vary from state to state but, in general, they are based upon both State and Federal Statutes.
One of the main Federal Laws upon which most if not all state laws protecting workers is based is the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. sec. 2000, et. seq.). While this law is extensive in nature, it basically boils down to a prohibition for employers of a certain size or greater against taking an adverse employment action (such as firing or demoting the worker) based upon protected classes or protected activities.
Protected classes vary from state to state but, most all states use the basic classifications from the federal statute as follows:
- National Origin or Ancestry
- Gender or Sex
- Disability and Certain Medical Conditions
These classifications are interpreted very broadly in some instances. For example, a female worker who is demoted or terminated following a pregnancy can be a form of gender or sex discrimination. Likewise, “disabilities” include not only conditions which cause physical limitations but, also mental disorders as well. While one might think that the law would define “older” workers as those in their 50’s or 60’s, it actually defines it was 40 years or older in many jurisdictions including California.
Protected activities include the right to make legitimate complaints of discrimination based upon the above criteria. It also includes the right to refuse to participate in illegal activities or report such activities to governmental authorities. (e.g. “Whistleblowing”).
The burden usually falls upon the employee to show that their termination, demotion, failure to hire or other adverse employment action was motivated by a protected class or activity rather than a “legitimate business reason”. This makes it imperative for employees to consult with a qualified employment law attorney to determine whether such evidence has been demonstrated and a civil action for money damages may lie. Such proof may lie in overt actions such as racial epithets or actions which show specific intent to discriminate, more often though, illegal motivation may lie in more covert actions or even disparate treatment between the employee and other workers. For example, if an employee is terminated purportedly based upon a legitimate “reduction in the work force” but, is replaced by a much younger worker making much less pay and benefits, this may show age discrimination. Likewise, if a female employee fails to get a promotion allegedly based upon lesser qualifications or work performance but, the promotion goes to a male employee with the same pre-hire qualifications or work performance history, this may show gender discrimination.
Fortunately, most employers including law firms try to and do comply with laws prohibiting discrimination in employment. However, such disparate treatment can and does still take place.
NOTE: For more information with a general overview of employment discriminatoin laws go to my related blog: California Employment Lawyers, Steven M. Sweat, APC