We usually take our workplace rights for granted, but it's important to remember that we didn't always have these:
1. Laws preventing racial or religious discrimination and sexual harassment. It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the U.S. government outlawed workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. And it wasn't until the late 1970s that the courts began finding that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination. Since then, the legislation has also been supplemented with protections against discrimination based on age (1967), pregnancy (1978) and disabilities (1990).
2. The right to discuss your salary and working conditions with your co-workers. The National Labor Relations Act ensures that employers can't prevent employees from discussing wages among themselves. (In practice, many employers have policies against this anyway, but these policies violate the law.) Similarly, your employer can't stop you from discussing your working conditions with your co-workers. Here again, NLRA protects you, since it reasons that employees wouldn't be able to organize if they were forbidden from talking with each other about such important issues.
3. Workplace safety regulations. It wasn't until 1970 – when the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed – that the United States had major federal workplace safety regulations. By regulating things like machine usage, airborne pathogens and electrical system design, the OSH Act now keeps tens of thousands of workers from work-related injuries, illnesses and death.
4. Federally mandated overtime pay. It wasn't until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that employers were required to pay certain categories of workers time-and-a-half if they worked more than 40 hours in a given week. If your job is categorized as non-exempt, your employer must pay you overtime. The protection is so strong that you're not permitted to waive this right even if you want to, nor can your employer offer you comp time in lieu of overtime pay. (Wondering about this "non-exempt" category? The federal government divides all types of jobs into one of two categories: exempt and non-exempt. Your categorization is not up to your employer; it's determined by government guidelines and based on the type of work you do.)
5. Laws requiring prompt payment for your work. Most states have laws that require employers to establish regular paydays and pay employees by that time. These paydays generally cannot be more than a certain number of days from when the work was performed. That means that your employer cannot decide to withhold your pay when business is slow, or because you performed poorly this week. You must be paid within the time limits established by your state. (And if you're not, you can file a wage complaint with your state labor agency.)
6. Whistleblower protections. Wondering what would stop your employer from retaliating against you if you raised concerns that any of the laws above were being broken? Thank the retaliation provisions of all of the laws above, which make it illegal to retaliate against a worker for reporting violations of these laws. Under these provisions, employers cannot fire you, demote you, harass you, give you worse work assignments or otherwise take action against you as retribution for reporting a violation of labor law. In fact, even if your charge was eventually found to be baseless, your employer still couldn't retaliate against you, as long as your complaint was made in good faith.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.