5 facts about employee rights


Many team members blindly stumble through issues of breaks, overtime pay, and family leave. Find out whether your practice gives you enough-or whether you expect too much.

The world of work is a complicated one, and so are the employment laws that govern it. The gray area between right and wrong when it comes to employee rights means that many team members—and bosses—are confused. Can employees talk about their earnings without getting fired? Are employers required to provide breaks? Many people think they know the answers to these common questions, but, in fact, they're perpetuating myths. Here are five of those mistaken beliefs—and the truth about them—so you'll be able to take off your work-rights blindfold.

Myth 1: Discussing pay with colleagues is forbidden

This is true only if you're divulging to Betty what Sally makes—and you aren't Sally. As long as you're not revealing another employee's salary, the National Labor Relations Act allows you to freely discuss your wages and working conditions with co-workers. In addition, employers can't require you to sign a confidentiality agreement or discipline you for telling your co-workers how much you make. Several states including California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, and Michigan have instituted their own employment laws to further protect workers' rights to discuss pay, and more states are in the process of doing so.

Myth 2: Employers don't have to pay unapproved overtime

The Fair Labor Standards Act says 40 hours per week is the maximum an hourly nonexempt employee can work before receiving overtime pay. Your practice might ask that you get overtime pre-approved. But if you work more than 40 hours—authorized or not—your practice must pay you for your extra time at 1.5 times your regular hourly wage. Several states have established their own standards for what constitutes overtime. In California, overtime is calculated after an eight-hour workday—unless the business has received authorization by the state to implement an alternative workweek. Many states have outlined specific requirements as to how employees are paid. The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is responsible for implementing comprehensive employment laws for hourly employees.

Myth 3: You can't look at your employee file

Most states allow you some access to your file if you have a legitimate business need to view it, such as when you're applying for another job and want to know what will come up in a reference check. You may be required to make the request in writing, pay for any copies, or view your file in the presence of a manager. Some states say employees can only request to see their files once a year, and others don't allow former employees access. Most employees aren't allowed to see their records when they're related to an investigation.

Look at Oregon as an example: In this state, employees may ask to view their personnel files or request a copy. When a business, such as a veterinary practice, terminates a worker, the business must keep that person's records for at least 60 days. During this time, the terminated employee is entitled to a certified copy of the records upon request. After the 60 days, the employee continues to enjoy the right to get a certified copy as long as the business keeps the records.

Why spell all this out? Employees, including veterinary team members, are responsible for their own professional reputation. Most of the time, employers are fair and any personnel files accurately represent employees. Still, it's a good idea to ask your manager to see your employee file if your state allows you access. This way you don't receive any surprise negative evaluations later.

Myth 4: Women are guaranteed 12 weeks of maternity leave

This is a complicated issue. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) says an employer must grant eligible employees 12 weeks' unpaid leave within a 12-month period for a variety of reasons, including the birth or adoption of a child. This doesn't mean your employer must grant you 12 weeks' maternity leave. Rather, they must provide leave based on your medical needs or the baby's as determined by your physician. For example, a woman who received a C-section might require 10 weeks of medical leave, whereas a woman who didn't undergo surgery may require only six weeks' leave to recover. Your employer may allow you to take time beyond your medical requirements, up to 12 weeks. If not, you'd be allowed to take the unused time later in the year if medically necessary.

But wait, all these FMLA rules only apply to businesses that employ 50 or more people. Many veterinary practices don't fall under FMLA guidelines. Some states, such as California and Oregon, have enacted laws that protect employees working for small businesses. What's more, the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act applies to employers with 15 or more workers and requires that women affected by pregnancy or childbirth must be treated in the same manner as other employees with temporary disabilities. Then there are limited circumstances when the Americans with Disabilities Act comes into play.

As you can see, maternity leave—and family leave, to include men—truly is a multi-layered situation. Your best bet to ensuring you and your practice are correctly handling it? Put the terms of your time off in writing—before you give birth.

Myth 5: Employers must provide breaks

In all but seven states, businesses aren't required to let you take five or 15. However, if your practice does give you an official break, you must be paid for that time. The exception is your lunch hour, which employers aren't obliged to compensate you for, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

As in other cases, some states have outlined different, specific requirements for rest and lunch breaks. For example, Colorado requires an uninterrupted meal break of at least 30 minutes if an employee's shift exceeds five consecutive hours of work.

If you're a little overwhelmed by all these regulations and exceptions to the rules, you're not alone. In fact, your practice owner or manager probably feels the same way. Keep in mind that employment laws are created to protect people, both employees and employers. Team members, doctors, and managers must work together to ensure the practice achieves the goal of being a business that's safe, productive, and mutually beneficial.

Websites that can help

The Department of Labor (dol.gov)

Information on wages, workplace safety, leave, benefits, and more

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)

Steps to take when filing a discrimination suit

Americans With Disabilities Act (ada.gov)

Your rights as a disabled employee

Workplace Fairness (workplacefairness.org)

A guide to your rights as an employee

Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, is a partner at the veterinary consulting firm VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Please e-mail firstline@advanstar.com with questions and comments.

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