Employee Rights in the U.S.: All That You Need to Know

Employee Rights in the U.S.: All That You Need to Know

Now that you have made the decision to live and work in the United States, you have a wide variety of secure employment options ahead.

The American employee-employer relationship is one of the most liberal in the world. This will be an upgrade for you if you’re coming from a relatively conservative nation with stricter employee rights and labor union regulations.

In the United States, you have the rights to:

  • No Discrimination & Harassment
  • Report Discrimination & Harassment
  • Combat Wrongful Termination
  • Equal Pay for Equal Skill, Effort, & Responsibility
  • Reasonable Accommodation
  • Privacy & Confidentiality
  • Minimum Wage, Leaves, and Overtime
  • Pensions & Welfare Benefits
  • Unionize

You would do well to accustom yourself to these different freedoms at your disposal.

No Discrimination & Harassment

Employees in the U.S. lean on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), which disallows discrimination against employees or prospective employees on the basis of race, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, or pregnancy.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 further disallows discrimination against employees on the basis of older age (40+ years), given a workplace of 20 or more employees. This also applies to U.S. citizens working in an American company overseas.

So, no matter where you’re from, and however different you might be, make sure to use these rights to validate your personal gravitas in employed conditions.

Reporting Discrimination & Harassment

Employees are protected from retaliation in the event that they report discrimination or participate in a discrimination lawsuit against the employer. This “whistleblower right” gives power to the employee and ensures that positive action is taken. It also applies to employees who report hour and wage violations against the employer.

However dicey it may seem to get into a legal dispute with your employers, remember that you are protected from them by federal law. Don’t be afraid.

Combat Wrongful Termination

Since it is against federal civil rights laws to discriminate based on sex, gender identity, race, religion, age, and pregnancy, any at-will employee terminations done with discriminatory language and/or intent are illegal. Furthermore, any at-will termination in violation of an employee’s contract or in retaliation against an employee reporting illegal activity is also illegal.

As mentioned before, your employers have their hands tied due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Equal Pay for Equal Skill, Effort, & Responsibility

Gender pay discrimination is a serious affair in the U.S. Employees are protected from their employers discriminating against them based on gender through the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This is based on employees receiving equal pay to co-workers of the opposite sex based on equal skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions. Of course, pay differences due to seniority and company merit systems are legal.

Furthermore, the pay is naturally subject to individual employee contracts, so make sure to read your negotiated contract before suing employers for gender pay discrimination. This law doesn’t apply outside the U.S., however. So, if you’re an American citizen who works overseas, you cannot invoke it.

Reasonable Accommodation

If you are an employee who has special religious reasons to dress or publicly present yourself in a certain way, you are allowed to do so under the reasonable accommodation derived from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), employees with disabilities must be given reasonable accommodations, unless their condition causes the employer significant expense and undue hardship.

If you are of that inclination, make sure to make the most of your unique religious-cultural identity. Do not be shy in asserting your differences, as you are allowed to, within reasonable accommodation, by law.

Privacy & Confidentiality

All employees have a right to privacy. This includes personal information, video surveillance, electronic device monitoring, and personal searches of employees’ workspace and vehicles if on company property. The scope of these rights differs, though, based on the sector. There is more privacy control for employees who work on government contracts.

In the private sector, however, privacy rights are based on company policy, which varies. Make sure to read and understand the scope of your company’s privacy laws. Usually, American companies monitor company laptops and other devices and can search you and your workspace while on company property.

If your company asks for personal information, make sure to inquire about the reason and look at the fine print to see if it is valid.

Minimum Wage, Leave, and Overtime

Unfair labor practices are more common than you think. Employers often don’t adhere to lawful minimum wage, unpaid leave, and overtime allowances.

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) has provided a federal minimum wage which is around $7.25 per hour. FLSA is not applicable for overseas employees.
  • For larger companies, employers are supposed to provide 12 weeks of emergency unpaid leave on a yearly basis according to the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, on the condition that the employee has worked 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months. An employee’s position may not be demoted during these leaves. This, too, is not applicable overseas. The leave is granted for qualified medical and family reasons; it is not the same as vacation time.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor has deemed that employees who earn less than $455 a week are entitled to overtime pay. If you are a creative professional, learned professional, outside employee, or computer employee, then the overtime requirement is not applicable.

Pensions & Welfare Benefits

While most people immigrating to the U.S. are not at the end of their careers, it doesn’t hurt to know the pension and retirement aspects in U.S. labor law. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) governs the provision of pension and welfare benefits to employees and holds plan fiduciaries accountable for the retirement assets of employees. It regulates the standards and behavior of plan fiduciaries and empowers employees with rights to sue for breaches in fiduciary duty. In most cases, ERISA will apply to overseas workers.

Whenever nearing retirement, make sure to familiarize yourself with ERISA and other such retirement labor laws.


One of the most important rights of employees is to create and organize labor unions that hold a measure of power over private and governmental companies and to collectively fight for their own interests.

The U.S. has legal structures in place that allow this, such as the Clayton Act of 1914 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). Under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, if a majority of employees in a company support a union, employers are beholden to bargain with them in good faith. NLRA is not applicable overseas, but is applicable to employees on oceanographic vessels.

The United States wasn’t always like this. As with most nations, employees’ rights were still repressed in the early stages of modernity, in favor of corporations. Labor unions were treated as “conspiracies” through the 1800s and were even called “unconstitutional” in the early 1900s, despite the Clayton Act of 1914.

But as the legislation and political character of the democracy progressed through the years, reforms and laws were passed that made it the open world it is today. As an employee, you will want to know how to navigate the legal channels of the American professional macrocosm. Contact a local lawyer if you need to understand the finer aspects of legality, which differ by state and locality.

Stay sharp.

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