Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Top Ten Employment Laws You Think Exist – That Don’t

Everyone tells me they know their employee rights. Some are even dumb enough to tell their employers they know their rights. The problem is, most of you are getting your legal information from courtroom TV shows or coworkers who know less than you do. Before you mouth off about your rights, here are some laws that most employees think exist - that don't.

Wrongful termination

If you live in Montana, your employer can only fire you for just cause. Otherwise, they can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. They don’t have to have a good reason. They don’t even have to give a reason in most states. Arizona has a law based on the Montana law, but they took the "just cause" (and some other pro-employee stuff)out of it.

Right to your file

No federal law requires private employers to allow employees to inspect or copy their own personnel files. Some states require employers to allow you to look at your file. Fewer allow you to copy items in your file. Many times, the only way you’ll find out what’s in your file is if you sue and you get it with a Request for Production, or if you subpoena it in unemployment or other proceedings.


No federal law requires employers to offer any work breaks for anything, even meals. Some state laws do require work breaks, but it’s not a majority. No law requires bathroom breaks, but it's probably a health issue, so OSHA might protect you if your employer denies bathroom breaks. If you're a nursing mother, you're entitled to an unpaid break to express breast milk if your employer is big enough. Some states also offer protection for nursing moms taking breaks.

Hostile environment/harassment

Hostile work environment is not illegal. Harassment is not illegal. Bullying is not illegal. Hostile work environment or harassment due to race, age, sex, religion, national origin, disability, color, taking Family and Medical Leave, whistleblowing, or some other legally-protected status is illegal.

Free speech

Only government employees have free speech protections, and those are very limited. You can be fired for your speech in the workplace or outside the workplace if you work for a private employer. You can't be fired for speaking on behalf of coworkers in order to improve work conditions or for objecting to something illegal, but be very careful to make sure you're protected before you speak out.


There is no law giving you privacy in your work emails or internet usage. If your employer is going to listen into or record phone calls, there are legal restrictions. You also have privacy rights in your medical information. There is no federal law protecting your social security number, but California and New York do offer limited protection against employers displaying your number.

Right to work

Right to work doesn’t mean your employer can’t make you sign a non-compete agreement or restrict your ability to work for competitors after you leave. What it means is they can’t make you join a union in order to work there. Some states, but not all, are right to work states. If your company tells you that signing a noncompete agreement is meaningless or that it won’t be enforced, they are lying to you.


There is no law prohibiting an employer from retaliating against you for reporting or objecting to policy violations, ethical violations, bullying, or jerkish behavior. Only if you do something that puts you in a legally protected category are you protected from retaliation. Examples would be objecting to discrimination, making a worker’s comp claim, or taking Family and Medical Leave.


Discriminating against you for being you is never illegal. Favoritism, nepotism, being a jerk, are not illegal. Discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, color and genetic information are illegal.

Individual liability

As much as it may give you joy to sue your boss personally, you probably can’t. Federal and many state discrimination laws, Family and Medical Leave Act (in some states - the courts disagree on this), and most other laws simply don’t allow it. The one exception is wage and hour violations. Some state discrimination laws do hold supervisors liable for violations. But what’s the point? Unless they’re rich, you probably won’t be able to collect anyhow.

Well that's wrong. What can I do about it?

Since most people think these laws exist, maybe it's time for them to actually be passed. Email your congressperson and state representative now and complain if you don't like the fact that you're not protected. Here are some places to find out how to contact your representative in Congress:



Here's a website with contact information for elected officials at the state and federal level:


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yippee - I Can Insult My Boss on Facebook Now!

You’ve probably heard about the case the National Labor Relations Board brought against a company for disciplining an employee based on insults she posted on her Facebook page about her boss. Well, it settled. So I expect to hear about a bunch of employees posting nasty comments about their bosses on Facebook, tweeting about how awful management is, and then wondering why the heck they were fired.

Please, please don’t post anything in social media you don’t want on the front page of the company newsletter. Don’t get yourself fired over something stupid.

The National Labor Relations Act and Concerted Activity

In re American Medical Response of Connecticut, Inc., Case No. 34-CA-12576 (October 27, 2010), is where the NLRB claimed a company violated the “concerted activity” provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). I personally like this provision a lot because it applies whether or not the company has a union, and covers pretty much every workplace. HR people and management-side lawyers don’t like to talk about it because it covers anything employees do for mutual aid or protection.

Here’s what it says: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157.

If you’re complaining about working conditions, not just your own but also those of your coworkers, you’re possibly protected from retaliation under the National Labor Relations Act. Does that mean you should rush to post what a jerk your boss is? No. Not unless you want to be fired.

The Facebook Case and the Facts

The NLRB’s settlement of this case doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily protected. The facts of the case were not unusual, but they might not apply to you.

The company had a policy that prohibited: “disparaging, discriminatory or defamatory comments when discussing the company or the employee’s superiors, co-workers and/or competitors.” It also prohibited employees from depicting the company in any way in social media. That’s pretty broad. Part of the NLRB’s beef was that the restriction was too broad. The settlement was, in part, that the company would “revise its rules to ensure that they do not improperly restrict employees from discussing their wages, hours and working conditions with co-workers and others while not at work.” The company also agreed that it “would not discipline or discharge employees for engaging in such discussions.”

Granted, the employee’s comments were pretty outrageous: "looks like I'm getting some time off. love how the company allows a 17 (company term for psychiatric patient) to become a supervisor," and saying the boss was "being a d***" and a "scum***." The company said she was rude and unprofessional, and violated their internet policy. Her coworkers then weighed in with comments supporting her and with further negative comments about the supervisor.

A big reason the NLRB found her activities protected was the fact that it resulted in comments from coworkers. If you post something just to vent and it doesn’t result in a discussion with coworkers, you’re probably not in the same boat. So tweeting that your boss is a jerk when your coworkers don’t follow you or comment is probably not going to be treated the same way.

Protesting Working Conditions Might Be Protected

While this wasn’t the first case involving protected comments, it was the first involving social media. Other cases where employee comments about working conditions were protected are where an employee was fired for criticizing unpaid two-hour sales meetings (also probably protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act and some other whistleblower laws, by the way); employees terminated for sending a letter protesting working conditions and that they were being told to spend large amounts of time on the company president’s pet project; and an employee who got a written warning for objecting to a supervisor’s lecture about radio headset volume.

So yes, protesting poor working conditions may well be protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Why You Should Keep Your Mouth Shut

I still suggest you shut your mouth about any complaints you have, especially in social media. There are just too many ways you can mess yourself up, and the law has too many loopholes to give you much aid and comfort.

Intention is key: Your intent is all-important. If your employer thinks your intent was to retaliate, damage your boss’s reputation, damage the company, or anything but to improve working conditions, then you’re probably going to have to file for unemployment.

No solo act
: Your comments have to be part of “concerted activity,” which is defined as “being engaged in with, or on the authority of, other employees, and not solely by and on behalf of the employee himself.” If you go it alone, you do it at your peril.

You might not be protected: There are also lots of exclusions, so many employees aren’t protected. Since the NLRA is meant mostly to protect attempts to unionize, supervisors, independent contractors (yeah, yeah, most employers get this wrong), domestic workers, agricultural workers, family member employees, managerial and confidential employees aren’t protected. If you’re high enough up, you can’t gripe and get away with it.

The company policy might be okay
: The NLRB has found other provisions in employer policies didn’t violate the Act. For instance, in one case language that prohibited “disparagement of company’s or competitors’ products, services, executive leadership, employees, strategy, and business prospects” was allowed.

Bullying and harassment is legal: Let’s not forget that there’s still not a single state in the U.S. that has passed a law against workplace bullying. My post with further information about harassment and bullying is here. Bottom line is that a bully boss still has the power to discipline you, decide whether you get raises or promotions, and make your life miserable. Why tick him or her off if you aren’t protected from retaliation?

No free speech at work: The First Amendment doesn’t protect you unless you work for the government. There’s no free speech in corporate America. My post about what you can and should complain about at work and still be protected is here.

But I’m Sure My Company Did Something Illegal

So you think you were fired or disciplined for criticizing your boss, and you’re pretty sure you are protected. Don’t sit on your rights. You only have 6 months to file a complaint with the NLRB.

They will investigate to determine whether or not there’s cause for your charge. They may interview you, at work if you’re still there. You can have a union rep or coworker present with you. A report then goes to the Regional Director, who decides whether or not the case will go forward. Mostly, the cases are dismissed. Only about 1/3 go forward.

If you’re dismissed, you can appeal to the General Counsel’s office.

If the Regional Director finds reasonable cause, then they’ll first try to settle it. About 90% of the cases settle at this stage. If it doesn’t settle, it goes before an Administrative Law Judge and NLRB staff counsel will represent you. You can also have a private lawyer with you, but the lawyer’s role is limited since the case is not yours but the NLRB’s.

If you win, you can get reinstatement, back pay and interest. You cannot get emotional distress or attorney’s fees. The judge can also order that the employer cease and desist their illegal practices.

When in doubt, contact an employment lawyer in your state to get more information about your rights.