As an employee, you give a lot to your employer – your time, energy, efforts, and dedication. Your employer also has a lot of power over you, providing you with a livelihood and benefits that you need to support yourself. You expect your employer to work with you in good faith, giving you the respect you deserve and providing you with your legally protected workplace rights.
But sometimes, employers fall short, either through poor management or intentional bad faith. You may experience harassment or discrimination from a coworker and your HR department may fail to take any action to stop the behavior. Your manager may deny you daily breaks or long-term family leave even though you have a legal right to take that time. Your company may even skim from tips or fail to pay you properly, shorting you on thousands of dollars in wages.
What can you do in these situations? It can feel overwhelming to try and face an entire company when you are just one employee. But U.S. federal law and New York state law both exist to protect employees and level the power imbalance between employers and workers.
Below are seven of the most common employment issues that New York employees face – how to spot them, how to deal with each situation, and how to recover your losses.
- Recognizing Workplace Discrimination and Harassment
- Understanding Employment Contracts and Rights
- Handling Wrongful Termination
- Ensuring Workplace Safety and Health
- Understanding Wage and Hour Disputes
- Getting the Family and Medical Leave You Deserve
- Recovering from Retaliation
So, what can you do if you’re facing a legal issue at work? You can file a legal claim on your own, but you will almost certainly get a better outcome for your case if you talk to a New York employment lawyer. A good attorney who has experience handling even the toughest employment cases can protect your career and help you get back pay and damages.
1. Recognizing Workplace Discrimination and Harassment
Everyone deserves a respectful workplace free from illegal harassment and discrimination. But unfortunately, these issues still exist in today’s modern workplace. Harassment and discrimination can seriously affect a victim’s work performance and mental health. A culture of widespread harassment or discrimination can lead to a toxic work environment.
In New York workplaces, it’s illegal to discriminate based on someone’s age, race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, marital status, or military status. Harassment and discrimination may not always be obvious. Some types of harassment can be subtle – for example, a pattern of off-color jokes, off-handed comments, or social exclusion. Discrimination can happen behind closed doors – for example, pay discrepancies or favoritism when it comes to assignments, promotions, or opportunities.
It’s important to learn to spot the signs of workplace harassment and discrimination, record and keep evidence of all instances of illegal behavior, and report the incidents according to your company’s policies. A good lawyer can help you navigate the nuances of this process.
2. Understanding Employment Contracts and Rights
Whether you’re signing an employment contract, non-compete agreement, non-disclosure agreement, or confidentiality agreement, the terms could affect not just your current job but also your future career opportunities. That’s why it’s critical to familiarize yourself with the terms outlined in these legally binding documents – you want to be clear on your job responsibilities, compensation terms, working hours, benefits, and termination clauses.
Remember that you have certain fundamental rights as an employee under New York law – such as fair wages, equal treatment, medical leave, a safe work environment, and protection against discrimination or harassment. Your employer cannot make you sign these rights away.
Even non-compete, non-disclosure, and confidentiality agreements have legal limits. An employment lawyer can help you determine which terms are enforceable and which are not.
3. Handling Wrongful Termination
Wrongful termination happens if you get fired for illegal reasons in violation of employment law or protected rights. Getting fired wrongfully because of discrimination or retaliation can be extremely disruptive to your life, career, and professional reputation.
In many cases, wrongful termination can be the final step a company takes in a pattern or series of unlawful actions. A company may respond with wrongful termination if an employee files a legally protected complaint (such as a harassment or discrimination report) or expresses concerns about safety in the workplace or a problem with wages or benefits. Instead of engaging with the employee in good faith and addressing their concerns, a company acting in bad faith could throw that worker under the bus and try to cover up any wrongdoing.
If you think you might become a target of wrongful termination, it helps to keep a record for yourself of all your performance reviews and any evidence that your firing was illegal. Your managers may suddenly start tanking your performance reviews to set up a “valid” reason to fire you even if your actual work output hasn’t changed. By keeping records of your employment documents, you won’t lose access if your company freezes you out.
In a wrongful termination case, your attorney can help file a claim on your behalf to recover for your losses from the firing, including any lost wages and the impact on your reputation.
4. Ensuring Workplace Safety and Health
You have the right to a safe workplace, even if you engage in dangerous work such as construction. Workplace safety standards can literally save lives. Companies must comply with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations as well as any industry-specific or even local or city-specific safety standards.
If you get injured because your employer is cutting corners and making the workplace dangerous, then you could file a claim for damages to put responsibility where it belongs. But you can also file a complaint even if nobody has gotten hurt yet. You don’t need to wait for an injury to take action when you see safety standards not being met on worksites.
If you bring up a safety issue and your manager, supervisor, or company executive retaliates against you by demoting you, firing you, or taking other negative action against you – that is not only illegal but also against the public interest. The government wants workers to report safety issues without retaliation. Companies could face punitive damages for this conduct.
5. Understanding Wage and Hour Disputes
Wage theft is the most common form of theft in the world, resulting in billions of dollars stolen from workers. Companies that engage in wage theft may skim tips, make employees work through breaks, fail to pay overtime rates, or refuse to pay for actual hours worked.
In addition, wage theft is often not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern that affects multiple employees. If you’ve been a victim of wage theft, chances are high that other workers at your company have experienced the same. An attorney can help you file a legal claim to get back pay for any wages that you’ve earned but haven’t received in a timely manner.
6. Getting the Family and Medical Leave You Deserve
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employees the right to take time off work to take care of their own or a family member’s medical condition. While the leave time is unpaid, your job position must be protected while you’re gone.
In addition, New York State passed the Earned Safe and Sick Time Act, which requires employers to provide unpaid sick time and even paid sick leave to certain employees.
If your employer denies you this leave time, you could take legal action. The same applies if your employer retaliates against you for taking your legally-protected leave.
7. Recovering from Retaliation
Employers don’t always act in the best interests of their employees. If a company believes that its employee’s legal rights are threatening its profits or reputation, leadership may lash out against that worker with negative actions, such as demotion or even termination.
But sometimes, retaliation is not that dramatic. For example, after you tell your manager that you’re taking medical leave under the FMLA, they stop giving you priority assignments. When you ask why, they say that you don’t seem serious about your career. Your performance reviews start to decline even though you haven’t changed the way you work. You may even get transferred to another department or you may lose your preferred shifts.
Even small acts of retaliation can have major consequences on not just your career but also your mental state. In many cases, retaliation is designed to be discouraging to “problematic” employees – if you quit as a result, they won’t have to fire you. This is illegal.
What Can You Do If You’re Facing a Legal Issue at Work?
Depending on the type of illegal misconduct you’re experiencing, you could have a number of legal options. If your company has an internal system for reporting incidents, the law encourages you to make use of it. But if you don’t feel safe using that system – or if you’ve already tried talking to company management but they’ve either ignored the problem or retaliated against you – then you might have to escalate your issue.
In some cases, you can report your issue to the relevant government agency directly, but that could get complicated and the agency may not end up investigating your claims.
The only way to know the best options for you is to talk to an employment lawyer about the specifics of your case. Every situation is unique and every case is different. An experienced labor attorney can help you decide how to proceed and file a claim with confidence. At Mirza Law, we can help. Contact us now to get started with your free case consultation.