Have you ever gotten that nervous feeling that something your employer or coworker has done just isn’t quite right? Maybe a colleague made a prejudiced jab at you, or a promotion was denied to you for questionable reasons. If that happens, says Gillian Thomas, Senior Staff Attorney for the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, don’t ignore it.
There are a number of laws in place that protect your rights as a worker — especially those based on protected classes like race, sex, religion, disability, and more — and you’re entitled to ensure that they’re being actively enforced. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should jump the gun and try to go to court right away, but when dealing with potential issues with employment law, educating yourself can only be beneficial.
Whether you want to do some research, seek legal advice, or actually file a complaint, the following resources can help you figure out what your rights are, whether an issue is worth pursuing, and what your next steps should be. Employment law may be tricky, but these 14 resources can make it a lot easier on you.
1. Your Employee Handbook
“[Employment] law is only the baseline of what employers have to provide, but companies are often far more generous,” Thomas says. “Review your policy manual to find out who the appropriate personnel are for your issue — some companies are large enough that they have someone who manages FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] and requests for accommodation under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].” Whether or not you decide to follow up with your employer on any issues is up to you, but gathering the information should be the first step no matter what.
If you find your employer to be in breach of anything they’ve laid out in the handbook, Thomas advises keeping a detailed record of the issues you’ve encountered. “The minute your spidey sense goes off that this is more difficult than I thought it would be… keep a record. Employment discrimination is very fact specific and based on who says what and when.” Thomas recommends keeping a notebook or notes section on your personal (not work!) phone or computer to document everything that happens, when, and who else was there. Bonus points if you can archive hard evidence like emails or text messages.
“The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces all laws against protected classes — national origin, religion, race, sex, disability, age, genetic information,” and color, Thomas says. On the website, you can find great fact sheets on your rights as a worker as well as how to contact the EEOC for consultation and, if need be, file a charge.
“[Workplace Fairness is] a really fantastic website that I consult sometimes,” Thomas says. “It’s a website that’s purely educational for the public… it’s not legal advice, but it’s more specific in the form of Q&As, like ‘I’m pregnant, and my boss told me I shouldn’t take maternity leave because I’ll never come back. Is that discrimination?’ [They also have] a lot of state-specific stuff, things like what the statute of limitations [to file a complaint with the EEOC] is.”
4. State Human Rights Commissions/Divisions
“In addition to federal laws, there are state and even city laws that can protect you and might have more generous protections,” Thomas says. “It always makes sense to search for your state and the human rights commission or human rights division. If you look on the state website, they will also have some of the same information about state-level protections.”
5. The ACLU and affiliates
The ACLU’s mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country,” so they cover a broad range of topics and serve a diverse population. This includes everything from the Women’s Rights Project that Thomas works for to the Immigrants’ Rights Project, the LGBT Rights Project, the Disability Rights Project, and more. The ACLU can help with everything from consultation to actually going to court — and with affiliates in every state in the country, the ACLU is readily accessible to workers around the nation.
If you’re passionate about correcting the gender pay gap, visit the AAUW, which “has very good fact sheets, especially about the issue of pay inequity,” Thomas says. Need help finding exactly what to say to your employer? They even run salary negotiation workshops. “But they also have fact sheets about what the law requires,” Thomas shares.
Organizations like the NWLC are “dedicated to creating reports and fact sheets and user-friendly materials for the public,” Thomas says, so they’re a great resource to turn to for sex-based discrimination. They can help with issues like equal pay, pregnancy discrimination, fair work schedules, sexual harassment, and more.
If you’re making minimum or a lower wage, navigating workplace issues can be even trickier, since consulting with a lawyer can be a big financial hurdle. Luckily, there’s NELP, which tends to “work more for lower-wage workers, the kinds of concerns that come up like you’re applying for unemployment insurance and they want to give you a drug test, or you have a criminal record and want to know if the employer is allowed to ask you about it, or minimum wage abuse, especially for teenagers and new hires.”
Based in New York with another office in Nashville, Tennessee, A Better Balance is committed to “promot[ing] equality and expand[ing] choices for men and women at all income levels so they may care for their families without sacrificing their economic security.” They are “especially well-informed about pregnancy discrimination, paid sick days, paid family leave and what you might have access to,” Thomas says.
The Department of Labor “enforces the Family Medical Leave Act, wage and hour violations like failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the Fair Labor Standards Act,” and more, Thomas says. There, you can get know-your-rights fact sheets as well as file a complaint.
11. Lambda Legal
Lambda Legal “is the oldest and largest national legal organization whose mission is to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV,” and it’s been around since 1973. Current and past court cases have involved challenging anti-LGBT legislation, heightening scrutiny for discrimination based on sexual orientation, and helping to prevent low-income folks living with HIV from losing their health insurance.
Founded in 1993, Disability Rights Advocates fights “to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide.” The group has helped address healthcare access barriers, discriminatory career advancement practices, and unlawful firings, among many other things. For context, in their 20+ year history, they’ve “taken on more than 400 cases and won almost all” of them.
13. State/City Bar Associations
If you need legal counsel but have a hard time affording it, Thomas recommends turning to “a state or city bar association, [which] usually has some sort of lawyer referral program.” Oftentimes, people on this list will be a mixture of those available for hire and those that are willing to provide pro-bono services, depending on the lawyer. Regardless, it’s worth reaching out to see what your options are.
Another valuable organization for finding the right legal counsel for you is NELA. “You can go on their website and type in what state you’re in and it’ll give you a list of NELA members in your state,” Thomas says. “NELA also has state chapters, which might have more extensive referral lists, so always check the state affiliates as well.”