Not everyone has a great boss or works for a great company, and even if you do, problems like work injuries and illegal termination can happen anyway. Here are some of the most common legal issues faced by employees, along with a few tips if it happens to you:
1. A work injury. Workers' compensation is an entire area of law in itself. It covers pretty much all injuries occurring while working, whether you're physically at work or outside the office but still doing something work related. There are a few things you should do right off the bat. First, get medical treatment if you need it. This is not only common sense but it will help in the future if you file a workers' compensation claim (make sure you tell your doctor exactly how you were hurt). Next, notify your employer, preferably in writing. Finally, talk to a workers' comp attorney, especially if your injury will require ongoing treatment or if you are unable to work.
2. Unpaid wages. You have a right to be paid what you have earned. While an employer can usually fire you at any time, or reduce your wages, change your hours, etc., they cannot fail to pay you what you've already worked for. Often, this comes up when an employee quits under tense circumstances and doesn't receive their last paycheck. This also comes up in overtime disputes. Not all workers are entitled, by law, to overtime pay, but those who are should get 1.5 times their pay for working more than 40 hours. It depends on the type of work you do and not the way you are paid (salaried employees may be eligible, for example). If your employer owes you pay, you can file a claim with the Illinois Department of Labor. For a large amount, or if you have questions about whether your employer is paying properly, talk to an experienced labor and employment attorney.
3. Non-compete agreements. As a new employee, you might be asked to sign a non-compete agreement. This basically says that if you quit, you can't go work for a competing employer until a certain amount of time has passed. It might also restrict your work within a certain geographic area. Non-competes are drafted and provided by employers and therefore favor their interests. Some of these agreements have been found by courts to be unfair and invalid, especially those that severely limit a person's ability to find a new job if they leave. An agreement that is too broad may not be enforceable. If you are asked to sign a non-compete, you can ask an employment attorney to review the terms and explain how restrictive it may be. The bottom line: understand what you're signing. If you breach the agreement later on, you could end up in a lawsuit.
4. Wrongful termination. If you think you've been illegally fired, there are a few things to consider. First, in Illinois, most employment is considered "at will," which means that you can be fired at any time and for pretty much any reason (although not an illegal one). If you have an employment contract, the rules are different. Generally speaking, if your boss doesn't like the way you dress or if you show up late for work just once, it's legal for them to fire you. Illegal reasons, on the other hand, include firing someone because of their religion, age, race, sex, in retaliation for reporting illegal activity, filing a work injury claim, or because they are pregnant, to name a few. If you are fired illegally, the first step is filing a claim with the EEOC, which will then give you the go ahead for filing a lawsuit. The biggest hurdle is proving that you were fired for the illegal reason and not for some other reason.
5. Sexual harassment. If you are being sexually harassed at work, bring it to the attention of your supervisor. If they don't know about it, then it can be difficult to hold them responsible. There are two main types of sexual harassment in the work place. One is when a supervisor or boss asks you to engage in certain behavior (sexual favors or a relationship) in exchange for something work related, such as a promotion. The other is when the work environment in general is intimidating or offensive because of sexual jokes, pictures, comments, etc. Just like illegal termination, these cases can be difficult to prove. But there are sexual harassment attorneys who have had success in forcing employers to change their company's work environment.
With unemployment rates high, most people are feeling lucky to have a job and are less likely to take action against their employer. But you should know your rights and know what to do if an employer is taking advantage.
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