In modern times, American employees enjoy some of the best basic rights in the world; however, basic employee rights were almost nonexistent before the 20th century. Small business owners must know and understand the U.S. laws that protect the basic rights of employees; failure to do so could lead to severe penalties and harm a business.
During the early part of U.S. history, many of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, wanted America to stay an agrarian society rather than industrialize, which they feared could lead to class division and the exploitation of workers. At that time, however, Americans still condoned the slave trade. Workers struggled for rights throughout the 1800s and early 20th century, which led to the development of labor unions. In 1938, Congress passed the most historic labor law of the time--the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA offered workers a plethora of basic rights, such as a minimum wage and overtime pay, and included a near-total ban on child labor.
The most basic rights of an employee are a right to a fair wage, a reasonable expectation of privacy and the right not to suffer discrimination. Federal law prevents employers from paying below a certain wage--and some states choose to go beyond federal law with their minimum wage. Employee privacy rights mean the employer cannot rifle through employees' personal possessions, such as those in a briefcase or locker. According to anti-discrimination laws, employers cannot practice bias against any person on the basis of race, creed, religion or economic standing. It is illegal, for example, to not hire someone because the employer thinks the applicant might not be a legitimate U.S. citizen.
Employees deserve basic rights, but they also must respect the rights of their fellow workers. An employee cannot, for example, discriminate against other workers by making sexual or racial jokes. Employees can and should report to their employer instances of discrimination, even those not directed toward themselves, without fear of retaliation.
Federal law protects the basic rights of most workers. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employers from discriminating against employees who have a qualified disability as long as they can perform essential job duties. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act covers age discrimination regarding those over 40, but only if the business has more than 20 employees.
The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees that all employees receive at least 12 weeks of sick leave and that their job is preserved during the leave, provided they have worked at the current job for 12 months or 1,250 hours. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act stops any type of discrimination for businesses with 15 or more employees.
Recommendations for Employers
Small business owners should check the Department of Labor's elaws Advisor to make sure they comply with any federal labor laws applicable to their business. In addition, state labor offices can help with state and local law.
The U.S. Small Business Administration recommends all companies create an employee handbook clearly stating employees' basic rights under the law, as well as any other rights the company chooses to extended to its workforce. The SBA offers free employee handbook templates.
- Rainer Elstermann/Lifesize/Getty Images