Your Rights on the Job

An Employment Guide For Young Workers

Nichole Bighess, a student at Cornell University, compiled “Your Rights On The Job” while working as an intern at the American Labor Studies Center. The infomation she has assembled is designed to help young workers understnad their rights in the workplace as protected in federal law. In addition, she has added material that identifies some of the major issues and problems that may arise at the worksite – she even includes helpful hints on improving your chances of beign hired through better resume writing and improved interview techniques.

It is estimated that 70-80 percent of teens will work for pay at some time during their high school career. Half of all employed teenagers work more than 15 hours in a single school week; one in six will work more than 25 hours during a school week. Many teens are employed, but do these teens really know all they should about the labor market? Although many gains have been made on behalf of children through child labor laws in the United States, many teenagers entering the labor force are still unaware of their rights and therefore vulnerable to unfair labor practices. It is important for all workers to become familiar with their rights to better enable them to protect themselves in the event that those rights are not being implemented. It is also important for upcoming employees to know what to expect upon entering a new job.

Laws stated below are federal laws for wages, hours and working conditions. Statutory laws may differ. Be sure to check the web links given below to see the regulations for your area.

Teen Worker Safety

OSHA’s site to help prevent injuries and protect the health of America’s teen workers by promoting positive and safe work experiences.

Minimum Wages:

All employees must be paid at the statutory minimum wage for all hours worked. State wages do not necessarily always equal the federal wage; if the state wage is higher than the federal wage then the employees are entitled to that state wage. However, those employees under the age of 20 years of age may be paid an hourly wage of $4.25 during their first consecutive 90 calendar days of employment with an employer. According to the Department of labor, “Certain full-time students, student learners, apprentices and workers with disabilities may be paid less than the minimum wage under special certificates issued by the Department of Labor.”

Tipped employees:

Those employees receiving tips must be paid a wage of at least $2.13 per hour. If the employee’s tips combined with the employer’s wage does not equal the statutory wage the employer must make up the difference.


If an employee is paid commission for sales, their commission may take the place of regular wages, however, if the commissions do not equal the statutory minimum wage, the employer must make up the difference according to the FLSA.

Time off:

If an employee would like to take time off from their job, the employer is not required to pay them for the days they have taken off (vacation, holiday or sick pay). This may be different if the employee is a member of a union in which the union contract may specify payment for time off. Note that some states have mandated pay for employees for jury duty, voting or family and medical leave.


Employees are entitled to time and a half for any overtime hours they complete. Overtime hours are considered those hours over a 40-hour workweek. If an employee has multiple employers, each employer is entitled to pay overtime only for those extra hours worked under them. For example if an employee works 30 hours for one employer and 30 hours for another, neither employer is entitled to pay overtime.

Compensatory time: Many employers offer employees time off (comp-time) in place of their regular cash payments. Employees should know that this practice is illegal in most situations. According to the FLSA only state or government agencies may legally allow their employees time off in place of wages.

Travel time:

Traveling time is not considered part of an employees work hours, therefore, employees need not be paid for that time. Lectures, meetings and training seminars are considered work hours and employees must be paid unless:

  • You attend the event outside of regular working hours
  • Attendance is voluntary
  • The instruction session isn’t directly related to your job
  • You do not perform any productive work during the instruction session.

Meals and Breaks:

Federal law does not require an employer to pay an employee during meals and breaks. Many states do require that an employee has a 30 minute meal break or small rest breaks throughout the day but they may not require an employee be paid for these breaks. The employer need not pay for this time as long as the employee is completely relieved of work duties. An employee must be paid for break periods under 20 minutes.

On-call periods:

On-call periods are considered working time. These are times when an employee is not actually working but is required to remain located on the employee’s premises or some other assigned area while awaiting a work assignment. If an employee is not required to stay in a designated area then they are not eligible for pay because they are allowed to control and use for their own enjoyment or benefit.


There are certain things that cannot be deducted from an employees paycheck, these include:

  • The value of time taken for meal periods
  • The cost of broken merchandise
  • Tools and materials used on the job
  • Required uniforms
  • Cash register shortages and losses due to theft

For information on the minimum wage laws in various states throughout the United States please visit:

Maximum Hours:

Children under the age of 14 are not permitted to work; however, there are exceptions to this rule. Children employed by a business solely owned and operated by their parents are permitted to work at any time of the day for any number of hours. These children are not permitted to work in the fields of manufacturing or mining. The child labor rules do not apply to the following: Youth employed as actors or performers in motion pictures, theatrical, radio or television productions; youth engaged in the delivery of newspapers; and youth working at home in the production of wreaths composed of natural holly, pine, cedar, or other evergreen (including the harvesting of the evergreens).

14 or 15 year olds are permitted to work:

  • 3 hours on a school day
  • 18 hours in a school week
  • 8 hours on a non-school day
  • 40 hours on a non-school week
  • between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., except from June 1 through Labor Day, when nighttime work hours are extended to 9 p.m.

Workers of 16 years or older are not limited in the number of hours per day/week that they may be required to work.

Working Conditions:

  • A youth of 18 years or older is permitted to engage in any job, even those considered hazardous for young laborers.
  • Those laborers of 16 or 17 years of age may only engage in those jobs that are not considered hazardous.
  • A teenager of 14 or 15 years old is not permitted to work in the manufacturing or the mining industries or in any other occupation considered to be hazardous. (i.e. Construction, Driving a motor vehicle, public utilities jobs etc.)

A more detailed list of jobs considered to be hazardous can be found at the following website:<
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Not only does the FLSA specify certain health and safety regulations but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found within the Department of Labor enforces those standards set by the OSH Act of 1970. This act establishes safety standards for the purpose of reducing the number of illnesses, injuries and deaths in the workplace. An employee has the right to a safe workplace. “OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace that is free of serious recognized hazards and in compliance with OSHA standards.” (
Under OSHA employees have the right to:

  • Obtain training from their employers
  • Request information about OSHA standards
  • Request action from their employer to correct hazards or violations
  • File a complaint with OSHA
  • Be involved with OSHA’s inspection of their workplace
  • Find out results of an OSHA inspection
  • Become involved with any meetings or hearings to discuss any objections their employer has to OSHA’s citations or to changes in abatement deadlines
  • File a formal appeal of deadlines for correction of hazards
  • File a discrimination complaint and request a research investigation on possible workplace health hazards.

For more detailed information on these rights please visit:

It is important to note that there are exceptions to some of the rules. For example agriculture has different employment stipulations than other jobs. There are no restrictions on employment in agriculture for anyone over the age of sixteen. Fourteen and fifteen year olds are able to work on a farm outside of school hours as long as the job does not involve hazardous work. Hazardous farm jobs include: operating a tractor, working around bulls, boars, stud horses, sows with suckling pigs or cows with newborn calves, working inside grain storage bins etc. There are exceptions to this rule.

  • The farming stipulations do not apply to children employed on farms owned or operated by their parents.
  • If a 14 or 15 year old is enrolled in a vocational agricultural program, if there is a written training agreement with the employer and the student is closely supervised then they may perform some hazardous farm work.
  • Employees over 14 years old my also operate machinery if they have completed a 4-H or other approved tractor or machine operation program.
  • Youths 12 and 13 years old may work on a farm outside of school that is not owned or operated by their parents, with their parents consent.
  • Youth 10 and 11 years of age may work outside of school hours to hand harvest crops (fruits and vegetables).

Employees’ Rights:

Every employee is entitled to certain rights on the job no matter what age that employee may be. Employees have the right to:

  • A safe and healthful workplace
  • For many jobs employees have the rights to receive payment for medical care in the occurrence of an injury or illness caused by the job along with a possibility of receiving lost wages
  • Safety and health training
  • At minimum an employee should receive the federal minimum wage (exceptions to this right are stated under wages)
  • The right to report safety problems to OSHA
  • The right to work without racial or sexual harassment
  • The right to refuse to work if the job is immediately dangerous to the employees life or health
  • The right to join or organize a union

The Fair Labor Standard Act was passed in 1938 after the Depression. This act defines the 40-hour workweek, covers the federal minimum wage, sets requirements for overtime, and places restrictions on child labor. The FLSA applies to employers whose annual sales total $500, 000 or more, or who are engaged in interstate commerce. Any employer that regularly uses the US postal service to send or receive letters to and from other states are engaging in interstate commerce. Therefore, the law covers nearly all workplaces in the United States. The FLSA also prescribes a maximum administrative penalty of $10,000 per violation and/or criminal prosecution and fines. Employees considered exempt from the FLSA are executive, administrative and professional workers. This includes those workers who:

  • Are paid with a salary.
  • Use discretion in performing job duties.
  • Regularly direct the work of two or more people.
  • Have the authority to hire and fire other employees, or to order such hiring and firing.
  • Are primarily responsible for managing others, and
  • Devote no more than 20% of work time to other tasks that are not managerial. For certain retail service companies, 40% of nonmanagerial time is allowed.

Other Major Federal Laws:

  • Equal Pay Act 1963: Employers are prohibited from paying employees of one gender at a lower rate than that paid to members of the other gender for doing equal work. Jobs can be considered equal when they require the same skill, effort, and responsibility under the same working environment, directed by the same employer. This law does not apply when the differential in wages is due to seniority, merit considerations or incentive pay plans. This law is very broad and open for interpretation by the courts. The jobs themselves do not have to be identical but the courts must consider them to be equal.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: This act prevents discrimination in all employment decisions such as hiring, training, promotion, pay, employee benefits and other terms and conditions of employment. Employees are prohibited to make these employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin
  • Age Discrimination Act of 1967: This law bans discrimination on employees over 40 years of age. Employers have been known to exclude older workers from work activities, cast negative remarks in the performance evaluations, deny older employees job-related education, career development or promotion opportunities, select younger applicants over older applicants, pressure older employees to retire early, and reduce job responsibilities of older employees. The Age Discrimination Act determines such employment practices as being illegal. Employers are legally unable to make employment decisions based on age.
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978: This act amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 establishing that pregnancy is considered a disability and in turn should be treated in the same manner as those employees with other medical conditions. According to this law it is illegal for employers to deny sick leave to pregnant women.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: This act prohibits employment discrimination based on a person’s disability. A disabled person is considered as a person who: has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, has a record of impairment, or, is regarded as having an impairment”. Under this act employers cannot: Discriminate on the basis of virtually any physical or mental disability, ask job applicants questions about their past or current medical conditions, require job applicants to take pre-employment medical exams and create or maintain worksites that include substantial physical barriers to the movement of people with physical handicaps. It would be considered discrimination if: employers were to use pre-employment tests or ask interview questions that focus on an applicants disabilities instead of their skills that are useful to the job, employers were to deny an employee health benefits or fringe benefits in general due to the employees disability, the employer were to discriminate against that employees families or friends and the employer were to segregate those workers with a disability from the rest of their employees.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991: this act amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under this law employees who have experienced intentional discrimination by their employer may be awarded compensatory or punitive damages. Compensatory damages are payments for future money losses, emotional pain, suffering, metal anguish and other non-monetary losses. Punitive damages are rewarded to employees when employers are shown to have engaged in discrimination with reckless indifference to the law. To show that their actions were not against this law an employer must prove that their actions were strictly job related and should be considered a job necessity.
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994: This act protects employees of discrimination based on military obligation in the areas of hiring, job retention and advancement.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been created to research ways to increase workplace safety. NIOSH have suggested that in the event that a teenager needs help due to problems at the work place they should do the following:

  • Talk to their boss about the problem
  • Talk to their parents or teachers
  • For a Hazard Alert on preventing injuries and deaths of adolescent worker or for information on specific workplace hazards, contact NIOSH at 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674) and ask for Report #95-125 or visit the NIOSH homepage at>
  • For more information on working safe, visit the web site of the Department of Labor at or call your local Wage and Hour Office.
  • If necessary one of these government agencies may be contacted.

Tools for Application:


A resume is a summary of an applicant’s qualifications for a specific type of work. It is a tool that will give the reader their first impression of the applicant. Categories that an applicant may want to consider including in their resume are as follows:

  • Contact information: This includes the applicant’s name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. If the applicant has a temporary and a permanent address he/she should include both specifying which is which.
  • Objective: (optional) This is where the applicant would state their employment goal. They should be brief and be sure not to use full sentences.
  • Qualification Summary: This summary will show the reader the applicant’s skills and strengths. The applicant should be sure to write brief statements using key words.
  • Education: This is where the applicant would identify their degree, area of study, name of educational institution and graduation date or anticipated graduation date. They may want to include their GPA, names of relevant courses, and internships.
  • Experience: This is where the applicant lists their work experience; each job should have a separate entry. It should include their job title, name of organization, location and dates they worked. It should also contain a brief description of job responsibilities. Each job description should start out with an action word.
  • Other Headings: The applicant should feel free to include other appropriate categories. (i.e. honors, languages, computer skills, volunteer activities, relevant course work etc.)

For more information on writing a resume as well as resume samples please visit:

Interviews may take several forms.

  • The non-direct interview: In this type of interview the interviewer may ask the applicant a single question and let the conversation flourish from there. The interviewer may also choose to simply talk to the applicant and develop an impression from their conversation.
  • The structured interview: This is where the interviewer asks the applicant a set of standardized questions. It usual contains four types of questions: situational, job knowledge, job sample/stimulation and worker requirements. The majority of questions will be based on job duties and responsibilities.
  • The situational interview: In this type of interview the applicant would be given a hypothetical situation and will be expected to state how he/she would respond to that situation.
  • The behavioral description interview: This is much like the situational interview, only this time the applicant is asked questions about what he or she actually did in a given situation. This type of interview uses past performance as the main predictor to future job performance.
  • The panel interview: This is where an applicant would meet with 3-5 interviewers simultaneously. The interviewer would take turns asking the applicant questions and they would score them on their answers. The panel would then compare their scores to determine an optimal outcome.
  • The computer interview: This type of interview requires the applicant to answer a series of multiple-choice questions on the computer. Their answers are then compared with the employer’s ideal answers and a decision is made.

For great tips on successful interviewing visit:

Employment Issues:

According to Title VII of the civil rights act an employer may not intentionally use race, skin color, age, gender, religious beliefs or national origin as the basis for decisions on hiring, promotions, dismissals, pay raises, benefits, work assignments, leaves of absence or any other term or condition of employment. If an employer is found to have violated an employees Title VII rights the court’s may: grant the employee reinstatement or promotion, wages and benefits lost due to discrimination, money damages for personal injury, order the employer to change its discriminatory policies, and order the employer to pay the plaintiffs attorney fees. If an employee feels that their Title VII rights are being violated they should file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Agency (EEOC) within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.

  • Discrimination against workers with HIV/AIDS: Government polls have indicated that 1 out of 100 workers are infected with HIV. Many states have passed laws in attempting to deal with the discrimination seen by those with HIV/AIDS. Some of these laws prohibit the use of HIV testing in the screening process of hiring. Under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees with this virus. Employers are even required to accommodate their employee’s disease. (i.e. extended leave, flexible work schedules etc.)
  • Discrimination against homosexuals: Unfortunately sexual orientation is not mentioned in the civil rights act. Many states have tried to eliminate employment discrimination against homosexuals but few have been successful. Only 12 states have banned the mistreatments of homosexuals on the job. In 1996 the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA) was taken to the senate but defeated 49:50. This act would have protected homosexuals in the same manner that the civil rights act protects workers.

Medical Leave:
The Family and Medical Leave Act states that an employee is able to take up to 12 weeks off from work in the event of the birth or adoption of a child, family health needs, or the employee’s own health needs. After this leave is satisfied the act requires that the employee be able to return to the same or a similar position. Those covered include: those that have been employed at the same workplace for a year or more, and those that have worked at least 1,250 hours-or approximately 24 hours a week-during the year preceding the leave. Exceptions: Companies with fewer than 50 employees within a 75 mile radius are exempt from the FMLA, employers may exempt the highest paid 10% of employees, school teacher and instructors are partially exempt, and if an employer employs two spouses who require their 12 week leave at the same time then the addition of their leave will equal 12. Each will receive 6 weeks.

It is legal for a company to monitor business related phone calls, as a matter of fact in some cases it is encouraged; for example telemarketers may be monitored to ensure that they are using successful customer service techniques. It is still unclear on whether the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) applies to some of the newer workplace resources such as voicemail, files made on computers, and e-mail. Employers have the right to open personal mailings sent to the company unless those mailing have the words “personal or confidential” written on them in which case the employer must have a relevant business reason to have opened such mail.

Parting a Job:
The principle of employment-at-will stands for the employer and the employee. Just as the employee has the right to leave a job as he/she chooses, the employer has the right to dismiss an employee when he/she chooses. This doctrine has really been put to the test in the last couple of decades and as a result it has been weakened on the side of the employer due to the courts decisions on wrongful discharge suits. There are exception to the employment-at-will principle: An employer may not fire an employee at will if they have a written contract specifying the terms of employment departure, and employer may not fire an employee at will if the employee can prove that the employer made an implied promise specifying the terms of employment departure. Workers must remember that they do no have any obligation to stay with an employer. If they wish to discontinue the employment relationship they have the right to do so at any time.

The Privacy Act limits the type of information that federal agencies, the military and other government employers may keep on their workers. Many states allow employees to view the contents of their personal folders. Criminal records are available to employers. Employers are not allowed to reveal medical information on an employee unless there is a business reason to do so. Employers are able to obtain a prospective employees credit information for use in the decision to hire.

Sexual Harassment:
The EEOC guidelines define sexual harassment as, “unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” There are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo harassment: this is when “submission to or rejection of sexual conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions.”
  2. Hostile environments harassment: this is present when the unwelcome sexual conduct “has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with job performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”
    For more information on sexual harassment visit:

If an employee feels they are being sexually harassed or discriminated against in the workplace they should contact the EEOC within 180 days of the act. For the EEOC office nearest to you, please visit:

Many companies are currently requiring that their employees where uniforms to work. They do this so it appears that their workers have a sense of unity. Requiring the use of uniforms is completely legal. An employer may also have grooming codes as well. These are requirements that employees must come to work clean and presentable.

Workplace Testing:
Employers may require an employee to get a physical or mental examination for insurance purposes. Drug test may be conducted on applicants if: the applicant knows that such testing will be a part of the screening process, the employee has already been offered the position, all applicants for that job are tested, the tests are conducted by a state-certified laboratory. Employees may be given a drug test if there is reason to suspect that they have engaged in drug use. An employee may not conduct a drug test on all employees at a given time. Under the federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 lie detector tests may not be used when dealing with employment.

Helpful Websites:

U.S. Department of Labor in the 21st Century
“The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) exists to serve as a national network for the exchange of information about child labor; provide a forum and a unified voice on protecting working minors and ending child labor exploitation; and develop informational and educational outreach to the public and private sectors to combat child labor abuses and promote progressive initiatives and legislation.”

Contains advice for teens, parents and teachers about teens going into the workforce as well as contact numbers for all the state departments of labor offices in the country.

Know Your Rights: A guide for working teens, 14 through 17 by Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Contains the statutory wage for each state in the country, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Prohibited Occupations for Non-Agricultural Employees
Worker Rights Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

Facts About Sexual Harassment, presented by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Contact information for EEOC field offices across the country.

Contains tips on obtaining a successful interview.

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