Today, laws are in place in Pennsylvania and at the national level to protect employees from unsafe working conditions, discrimination, harassment, and wrongful termination and to ensure they receive fair pay and benefits. While workers’ rights are sometimes taken for granted, they are a result of decades of employer abuse. In the 1800s, Pennsylvania was home to world-famous robber barons who made astronomical fortunes from mining coal and forging steel. In the process, they ignored dangerous and even deadly working conditions and forced many employees to subsist at a near-poverty level.
Decades of abuse eventually motivated lawmakers to enact the Pennsylvania Workmen’s (Workers’) Compensation Act in 1915. An updated version of the law is still in place today. This act provides lost wages for employees hurt on the job. In the 1970s, workers’ compensation became mandatory for all employers, and in the 1990s it allowed employers the option to self-insure.
While many Lancaster County companies honor the century-old labor laws, other employers knowingly or unknowingly engage in illegal practices that could cost the worker everything from wages to their job.
While workers’ compensation laws have been around for more than 100 years, some Pennsylvanians are still unsure which rights are protected under the act. This list reviews just six of the many ways employers sometimes violate Pennsylvania or federal employment laws.
Businesses Can’t Treat Freelancers Like Employees Without Employee Benefits
Freelancing is more popular and prevalent than ever, especially in the digital sphere. When a business uses freelancers, it may be able to get exceptional work without paying for benefits or overhead. Employers do not pay income taxes, offer benefits, pay overtime or vacation pay, or provide worker’s compensation or unemployment insurance for freelancers.
However, freelancers also have well-documented rights. Freelancers determine where and during what hours they complete their contracted work. They can refuse projects or work at will. It is illegal to require a freelancer to work on the premise or at the same hours as paid employees. It is also illegal to prohibit freelancers from working for other employers simultaneously.
If an employer (1) attempts to control when and where a freelancer works, (2) subjects freelancers to job performance reviews, or (3) ask them to represent themselves as an employee to customers or clients, including requiring a freelancer to present company business cards, it is breaking the law.
The best way for freelancers to protect themselves is to start every new relationship with a sound business contract that clearly outlines their relationship with the company and restates legal restrictions. Freelancers who have been asked to “bend the rules” on behalf of a company, or have unknowingly been positioned as employees, may be entitled to unpaid benefits.
Companies Can’t Require Employees to Sign Employment Contracts Without Time for Legal Review
Many employees are asked to sign a variety of contracts over the course of their employment, from an initial employment contract to a severance agreement. It’s also common to be asked to sign non-compete covenants, non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality agreements, and employee handbooks. An employee may be tempted to skim an employment contract before signing, but they are legally entitled to time to review a contract before signing it. This may range anywhere from several days to even a few weeks.
If an employer pressures their employees to sign on the spot or asks them to return the contact within a day, they are breaking the law. Employees are entitled to take the time needed to thoroughly review any agreement to ensure they understand it completely.
Before signing any contract, ask an employee rights attorney to review the document to look for unreasonable terms, unusual stipulations, or unclear language that could lead to problems in the future.
Employers Can’t Treat Employee Handbook Policies as Optional
Many HR departments present employee handbooks as a guide that can be referenced if needed. However, the law requires employers to enforce the policies in an employee handbook consistently and without discrimination. An employee handbook can outline policies on paid leave, benefits, vacation, discrimination, the procedure for redressing grievances, formal reprimands, and reasons for termination.
Even in an at-will employment state, such as Pennsylvania, an employee may have a case for wrongful termination if their employer lacks a well-written employee handbook if their employer has ignored policies in their handbook, or if their employer has applied the policies to some employees but not all.
Businesses Must Pay Overtime
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 workweek. Lancaster County businesses must comply with both state employment law and federal laws regulating overtime pay and must offer an employee the greater benefit when there is a difference between the two.
Additionally, if an employer requires an employee to be on call or to respond to requests and calls after hours, that employee must be paid for that work. Importantly, it is illegal to ask an employee to do any work “off the clock.”
Salaried employees who work more than 40 hours per week and earn less than $35,568 (as of January 2020) are eligible for overtime regardless of their job duties.
Companies Can’t Retaliate Against Employees for Complaining About Working Conditions
Unions were formed as a way to help employees address adverse working conditions. However, you don’t need to belong to a union to discuss work-related issues, such as wages and working conditions, with coworkers. In fact, federal law protects your right to engage in this kind of “protected concerted activity.”
The right to complain about work extends to the use of social media as a communication tool. The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly ruled that workers have the right to say negative things about their jobs in public forums without risk. However, this does not mean that employees can say anything about supervisors or coworkers. This overview of the parameters of the LCRB from Justia is a good guideline:
“…If you are part of a group of five employees that participates in Facebook postings about a coworker who plans to complain to management about the group members’ work performance, you are likely to be found to be engaging in protected concerted activity under NLRA.
“An employer’s social media policies should not be so broad that they prohibit the discussion of wages or working conditions among employees. If posts or comments on posts are not work-related, they are not likely to be considered ‘protected activity’ under NLRA. Moreover, an employee’s gripes on social media about an employer or coworker have not protected activity unless they are made in relation to group activity among employees. If you post a malicious rumor to Facebook about a supervisor having a sexually transmitted disease and a number of your Facebook friends are coworkers, this is not likely to be found protected concerted activity. It also may open you up to civil liability in a defamation or privacy suit. For example, when a BMW salesman posted photos of an embarrassing incident at a dealership near his workplace, which did not involve fellow employees, the NLRB agreed with the administrative law judge that this was not protected concerted activity.”
Importantly, the First Amendment only protects employees’ speech from government interference. While laws exist to protect employees from organizing and talking to other employees about working conditions, these laws do not usually protect employees who use hate language, make threats, insult coworkers, or otherwise post information that is threatening or unnecessarily harmful to people or businesses.
Employers Can’t Demand Access to Your Social Media
Many states now have laws that prohibit an employer from requesting or obtaining passwords to personal social media accounts. Some of these laws also forbid an employer from requiring an employee to change privacy settings or add a person from the company as a friend or contact. These laws are frequently changed or updated, so if an employee is being asked to share access to a private social media account, it’s wise to consult an employee rights attorney to understand the latest version of these laws.
Don’t Face an Employer Alone
Many companies retain or employ lawyers to help them keep the upper hand in legal situations. However, employees can level the playing field by working with an experienced employee rights attorney. If you’re looking for assistance, feel free to email Going and Plank today.