How do I know my work rights?

Your job is your livelihood. It puts food on the table. It pays the rent. It may even help finance your child’s college education one day. You show up on time. You work late when there’s a deadline. And you do your best to succeed. To lose your job could have serious, long-term consequences for you and those who depend on you.

But while you may be expected to meet certain requirements on the job, you also have certain rights at work. In most cases, for example, your employer has to pay you the minimum wage. And, with some exceptions, your employer must provide you with regular breaks, overtime pay, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance and time off for a serious illness or new baby. Your employer cannot force women to wear dresses to work, in many instances, or expect employees to tolerate sexually degrading posters displayed in the office. And, if you are a person with a disability, your employer may be required to make changes in your workplace to assist you in performing the essential functions of your job.

You have a number of basic rights and protections as a full-time employee:

  • You do not need to work more than 48 hours in a week, unless you freely choose to opt-out of the limit and give your employer confirmation of this in writing.
  • You’re entitled to 5.6 weeks (28 days if you work five days a week) paid leave per year. Your employer can choose to include public holidays in this total.
  • You’re permitted at least 11 hours rest between working days.
  • You have the right to either an uninterrupted 24 hours clear of work each week OR 48 hours clear of work each fortnight.
  • If you work more than six hours in one shift you are entitled to a 20-minute rest break and additional breaks may be given by your contract of employment. There is no statutory right to cigarette breaks.

There are a few exceptions to these rights – including the armed forces and emergency services – but the principle is that all workers should have on average at least 90 hours rest a week.

Does my employer need a good reason to discipline or fire me?

Normally, no. There is no legal right to be treated “fairly” in the workplace. In California, as in almost all other states, the law permits employers to discipline (suspend or demote, for example) or fire their workers at will or, in other words, without needing or providing a reason. However, there are some significant exceptions to the rule.

Is it illegal for my employer to discriminate against me?

Your employer normally cannot fire you or discriminate against you because of certain personal characteristics. The law specifically prohibits employers of five employees or more from treating employees unfairly because of their race, sex, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, marital status, medical condition, sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, you probably can’t be fired simply because you are a woman.

Can my employer deduct anything from my pay check?

  • union dues or tax withholdings;
  • any losses caused by your dishonesty, wilful misconduct or gross negligence; or
  • Specific deductions that you previously gave written authorization to the employer to make.

In addition, wages could be deducted for food and lodging that, by pre-agreement, are part of your salary. And, under certain conditions, an employer can offset minimum wage payments by providing you with food and lodging. Your employer cannot, however, require you to pay for meals or housing through your job. And if you have to buy tools or a special uniform for your job, your employer usually has to reimburse you.

Does my employer have to accommodate my disability?

It depends on the size of your employer, the nature of your job and your disability. First of all, your employer must employ at least five people to be covered by disability laws. Next, you must be qualified to carry out the essential functions of your job and be able to do so with or without a reasonable accommodation. You must meet the employer’s training and production standards. And you cannot suffer from any condition that puts you or others in significant danger.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of illegal discrimination. In general, it is unwelcome sexual conduct on the part of a supervisor, co-worker or client. That conduct could be sexual comments, pressure for sexual favors, inappropriate touching or even a sexual assault.

Is there anything I can do about unsafe working conditions?

Yes. While some jobs are inherently more risky than others, you are entitled to a safe and healthy workplace. Under limited circumstances, you can even legally refuse to do any work that you believe would seriously endanger you or your co-workers-and your boss cannot punish you for doing so.

Can my employer give me a bad reference?

Yes, if it is the truth or offered as an opinion. However, if your employer misrepresents your job performance to keep you from getting a new job, he or she has violated the Labor Code and could also face a lawsuit for defamation.

To prove defamation in a job reference, you would have to show that your employer intentionally harmed your reputation by making false statements.

Employers are not liable, however, for statements made in certain official proceedings or legally required background investigations.

How can I find a lawyer to represent me?Ask a friend, co-worker, employer or business associate to recommend an attorney with experience in employment or labor law or, depending on your situation, in workers’ compensation law. Or, call a local State Bar-certified lawyer referral service