Guest Post: Employee Rights at a Startup For The HR Professional

Employees are each afforded the same level of rights, whether they’re new on the job or have worked at the same location for 25 years. This also holds true for people whether they’re working at an established business or a startup. Since new business owners are often less knowledgeable about employee rights, it’s important for new hires of a startup company to know their rights going into the job. As an HR professional, it’s important to make these things well known to your employees to ensure a fair and safe workplace.

At-Will Employment 

The majority of employee/employer relationships are considered to be at-will. This means that you, as the employee, have a legal right to quit a job for virtually any reason. Conversely, the employer has the same right, but with a few notable exceptions. They include the following:

  • You cannot be fired for reasons of race, religion, age, disability, or gender, among others.
  • You cannot be fired for joining with coworkers in an attempt to improve working conditions and wages. This is true regardless of whether or not the effort is unionized.
  • You cannot be fired for complaining about unsafe workplace conditions (such as a hazard for slipping and falling on the job), illegal activity, or harassment and discrimination.
  • You cannot be fired for exercising your legal rights to military service leave, for jury duty, or for taking family and medical leave.

If you feel that your termination was done in retaliation for exercising any of your legal rights, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Discuss your case with them and provide as much documentation as you can. 

Fair Wages 

All employers are required to pay a minimum wage equal to either the federal minimum wage or the state minimum wage. Whichever is the higher hourly wage prevails. The employer does not have the right to choose between the two. For example, the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, but in California the minimum wage is $8.00 an hour. In that scenario, the employer is required to pay his employees at least $8.00 an hour.

Review your paychecks as you receive them. Sometimes employers, especially new business owners, will make errors when calculating pay. Make sure that you are being paid the same wage per hour for all regular hours worked. Your employer cannot pay you a lower wage for some regular pay hours and a higher wage for others. If you are a fixed salary employee, divide the amount paid in gross wages by the number of hours worked. The average must be at least the prevailing minimum wage rate.

The law is straightforward when it comes to payment for overtime worked by an employee. With the exception of employed minors, there is no legal limit on the number of overtime hours allowed. However, an employer is required to pay his employees a minimum of one and a half times his regular hourly rate for any period of time worked in a week that exceed 40 hours. In the states that gauge overtime based on daily work rather than hourly, an employer is required to pay the minimum overtime rate for any period of time that exceeds eight hours in a single day. That’s regardless of whether or not the employee meets the 40 hour workweek threshold.

Family and Medical Leave Act 

The federal government’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates that employers with 50 or more employees must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year, as necessary, to handle specific family situations and health crises. These can include caring for yourself or a family member who has a serious health condition, or caring for a new child through childbirth, or a child of any age that you’ve adopted. Additionally, if you need to care for a member of your family who was seriously injured while serving in the military, you are allowed up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave.

In addition to the federal law, many states have their own laws in place regarding medical leave. Some have laws for smaller businesses who don’t meet the minimum ‘50 employee’ rule as required by federal law.

If you work for a startup and don’t agree with the actions of your employer, or feel that what he is doing is illegal, consider speaking with him first. The chances are pretty good that, because he’s just starting out, he simply isn’t aware of the law. If you aren’t successful in your attempt to work it out, contact your state labor board for clarification of the law before deciding whether or not to file a complaint.

About the author:

Nik Donovic has worked in businesses that had no HR to companies that had a corporate HR. His opinions and thoughts come from a summation of experience in all environments.