In the nineteenth century and parts of the twentieth century, employees and employers were largely left to themselves to arrange a working agreement, including payment, work conditions, and so on. Employees had to trust that their employers would treat them fairly, and employers knew that if they didn’t treat their workers well, they might leave to work somewhere else. Although this arrangement worked well for many, during the industrial revolution, employees began to lose their leverage of leaving that kept employers in check.
During the industrial revolution, large factories rose up, employing workers by the thousands. Employers rarely had direct contact with their employees, and people akin to task masters oversaw the workers. Working conditions were harsh. If a worker showed up late to work, was in any way disorderly, or tried to unionize, he or she could be fired. Even children were hired and forced to work long hours in unhealthy environments.
And despite poor working conditions, long hours of arduous labor, and low wages, factory employees had nowhere else to go because most places of employment were the same. These difficulties were most often experienced by immigrants and the poor, and because they had no way to improve their situation, these workers had no choice but to work in these factories and other similar places.
Eventually, in the early twentieth century, the government passed a series of labor laws that helped rectify the poor working situation. These laws established minimum wages, work environment regulations, and union rights. And throughout the century, more laws were periodically passed that made illegal any discrimination (based on gender, religion, age, and so on) against employees.
Because of the sufferings of thousands in those prior years, employees today enjoy the benefits of being guaranteed certain rights. Unfortunately, some employers are still found guilty of disobeying these employee-protection laws.
Today, the most common breach of employee rights is discrimination. Some employers may even inadvertently discriminate against employees based on age, gender, race, religion, or disability. But inadvertent or not, discrimination in the workplace is illegal. One of the only exceptions is discriminating against disability. If a job cannot be performed with reasonable accommodation by a person with a disability, the employer retains the right to not hire that person. Of course what is considered “reasonable” is something of a gray area, but the exception is meant to ensure that employers aren’t forced to hire someone who can’t perform the job.
Another common type of discrimination is based on age. Many have the misconception that someone who is older may not be as good a worker as someone who is young. However, if an elderly person meets all of the requirements of job, he or she must be seriously considered on equal footing with other candidates.
In regards to the payroll, gender discrimination is quite common. In general, women are still paid less than men for performing the same jobs. Although this disparity in pay is becoming smaller and is not as bad as it was just a few decades ago, in general, women are still paid less. The problem in detecting this type of discrimination is that people are often prohibited from discussing income with their coworkers, and many people don’t know what is considered fair pay for their jobs.
Another all-to-common illegal occurrence in the workplace is sexual harassment, particularly toward women. Sexual harassment can range from derogatory or sexual comments to receiving promotions based on sexuality to unwanted forceful actions. And sexual harassment is illegal not only if it comes from an employer but from a coworker as well. Unfortunately, in many cases of sexual harassment, the victims are either too embarrassed or scared to come forward and take legal action against the guilty party.
And although discrimination and harassment are illegal, when people take legal action against their employers on the basis of discrimination, feelings of tension or anger may exist between the two parties. And although there may not be much a person can do to resolve the tense atmosphere, employees can rest assured that if an employer attempts to discharge our fire them because they filed a charge of discrimination, the employer will face additional legal charges.
Employers also cannot legally retaliate against those who take protected leave under the Family Medical Leave Act or who file a workers’ compensation claim. Such retaliation is illegal so that employees will not be threatened or discouraged from filing legal charges.
Sometimes employees find it difficult to prove that they are being discriminated against or they may not be entirely sure what legally qualifies as discrimination or unfair treatment. In these cases, an employment attorney can be helpful. Employment attorneys specialize in labor laws and are familiar with past employment law cases, which can help you better understand your rights and determine if you should take legal action against an employer. And whether you’re looking for a Houston employment attorney or one elsewhere, you should research the attorney’s qualifications and experience before hiring one to advise or represent you.
Labor and employment laws were created after years of worker oppression and in response to employees’ demands for fair and equal treatment. Because of these laws, employees are no longer required to work obscenely long hours for little pay, work in unsafe environments, or suffer from harassment and other abuses. Because of these laws, working conditions have drastically improved, and with the current legal system, employees have a means to constantly evaluate, analyze, and continue to improve working conditions in a way that ensures they can do their best work without fear of oppression or discrimination.
Rosenberg Law (http://www.rosenberglaw.com/) is a Houston employment attorney, Texas practice devoted exclusively to employment law, primarily representing individuals in claims against their employers. Art Gib is a freelance writer.