By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
Pennsylvania and federal employment laws are designed to protect employees from unsafe working conditions, discrimination, harassment, and wrongful termination, and ensure they receive fair pay and benefits. While many Lancaster County companies honor those labor laws, others knowingly or unknowingly engage in illegal employment practices – and that could cost you everything from wages to your job.
It is important you understand your rights as an employee. Here are five ways your employer may be breaking Pennsylvania or federal employment laws. If you suspect your employer has violated your employee rights, contact an attorney at Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster to review your case.
Violation 1: Treating Freelancers Like Employees, But Denying Them Employee Rights
It’s easy to see why an employer might be tempted to hire you as a freelancer rather than an employee. When you are classified as an independent contractor, you are exempt from certain employee rights. Employers are under no obligation to pay income taxes, offer benefits, pay overtime or vacation pay, or provide worker’s compensation or unemployment insurance. However, freelancers and independent contractors enjoy some rights of their own that regular employees do not. They determine where and during what hours they complete their contracted work, and they are free to work for other employers simultaneously.
If you are classified as a freelancer and your employer attempts to control when and where you work, evaluates you on your job performance, or asks you to represent yourself as an employee to customers or clients, then your employer is breaking the law. They are treating you like an employee but failing to provide you with the benefits to which you are entitled. Make sure you have a sound business contract that clearly outlines your relationship with your employer. Contact an attorney at Going and Plank to review your business contracts and determine if you’ve been misclassified. You may be entitled to unpaid benefits.
Violation 2: Pressuring Employees to Sign Employment Contracts Without Time for Legal Review
As an employee, you may be asked to sign a variety of contracts over the course of your employment, from the initial employment contract when you begin your job to a severance agreement when you leave. You also may receive non-compete covenants, non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality agreements, and employee handbooks. In your excitement to start a new job, you may be tempted to simply skim an employment contract before signing. That would be a mistake. A well-written contract will outline important details of your employment, such as salary and benefit information, conditions under which you may be terminated and the procedure for resolving disputes.
If your new employer pressures you to sign on the spot, they are breaking the law. You are legally entitled to take time to review any agreement to ensure you understand it and are not signing away basic employee rights. Before you sign any contract, ask an employee rights attorney at Going and Plank to review the contract to ensure there are no problematic clauses, unreasonable terms or unclear language that could lead to problems in the future.
Violation 3: Ignoring Employee Rights by Failing to Follow Employee Handbook Policies
Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state, meaning employers generally can terminate employees at any time, and employees can quit at any time, without fear of legal liability. Employers can often use their own discretion to change their policies, apply policies selectively or ignore policies altogether. While those actions may seem unfair, they are not necessarily illegal.
If, however, those policies are part of an employee handbook, an employer may be legally bound to follow them and enforce them consistently. Employee handbooks can set forth policies on everything from paid leave and benefits to discrimination and harassment. They are often cited in legal actions and should be viewed as legal documents. If you feel your employer has engaged in illegal employment practices by violating employee handbook policies, contact a lawyer at Going and Plank to review your case. Even in an at-will state, you may have a case for wrongful termination if your employer lacks a well-written employee handbook or if they have ignored policies in their handbook.
Violation 4: Not Paying Overtime
Pennsylvania employers must comply with both state employment law and federal employment law when it comes to overtime pay, and they must offer their employees a greater benefit when there is a difference between the two. While employment laws classify certain jobs as exempt from overtime pay, all non-exempt Pennsylvania employees are entitled to overtime pay at time and a half for all hours worked beyond 40 hours in any given work week.
Additionally, you must be paid if your employer requires you to be on call or to respond to requests and calls after hours. And it is illegal for your employer to ask you to do any work “off the clock.” If you suspect your employer is breaking overtime laws, or shorting you on wages, contact an attorney at Going and Plank to discuss your employee rights.
Violation 5: Punishing Employees for Complaining About Working Conditions
Even if you are not represented by a union, federal law protects your right to engage in “protected concerted activity,” meaning you are free to discuss work-related issues such as wages and working conditions with co-workers. That right extends to the use of social media as a communication tool. The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly ruled workers have the right to say negative things about their jobs in public forums without risk.
If your employer punishes you because of something you post on social media, they may be breaking the law. However, be careful about what you post. Personal gripes about your employer, or comments that could hurt your employer’s business or put them at legal risk, may not be protected.
If you suspect your employer is breaking the law, contact an attorney at Going and Plank to ensure your employee rights are protected.