Basic Rights on the Job in Georgia

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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This document tells you the following:

  • What are your contract rights on the job?
  • What are your rights about hours and wages?
  • What are your rights in terms of harrassment?
  • What are your rights regarding a safe working environment?
  • What are your rights regarding employee unions?

Contract Rights

Employment contracts are usually oral (that is, spoken). The employer says, "You're hired." You, as the employee, say, "I accept." Be sure, though, that you understand all of the terms of the contract before you agree. An employer's policy manual may define employee rights and duties when no written contract exists.

Written contracts occur in two general areas:

First, if there is a union, then the union and the company have a written contract. This is called a collective bargaining agreement. It will govern the wages, hours, and conditions of employment. Most of the information about the job will be in the agreement.

2. Written contracts are also common in the "personal services" area. Salespersons, teachers, professional sports players, and others have written contracts. These contracts should be read carefully. If confused, the applicant should hire a lawyer to explain what the contract states.

Contracts are enforceable in a court of law. An employee or an employer can become involved in a lawsuit if he or she is not careful to respect the rights, terms, and conditions that are spelled out in a contract.

As an employee, you have rights given by the employer through a contract-regardless of whether the contract is oral or written or whether it is an individual contract with the employer or a union contract. You also have the rights given by the laws of the United States and state of Georgia. If the statutory law or the contract provides for a right, then an employee has that right. Otherwise, the right does not exist in Georgia.


Neither federal nor state law requires employers to provide vacations, breaks, or pensions. Nor do statutes require them to provide health insurance or paid sick leave. If your employer has no vacation policy, then you do not have the right to a vacation.

If your employer-employee contract does not give paid sick leave, then you are not entitled to be paid for those days you are sick and cannot work. Most employers give these benefits, however, because they could not keep employees if they did not. If they do provide them, the law does require that benefits be provided without discrimination.

Statutory Rights

Not all rights and benefits for employees depend on contracts. Some are provided by state and federal laws. You have already read about some of these laws, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This section describes some others.

Rights Concerning Hours and Wages

1. Minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by Congress in 1938. Among other things, it requires most employers to pay minimum wages to employees. It also sets minimum rates for overtime pay and pay scales for students working in the summer. As of September 1997, the minimum wage was set at $5.15 an hour; most companies cannot pay less. However, the 1996 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act permit employers to pay a person under 20 years of age an "opportunity wage" of not less than $4.25 per hour during the person's first 90 days of employment.

Employment law can often be seen as a response to contemporary problems or needs. The minimum wage law was passed during the Great Depression. At that time, many people needed jobs. Because so many people were desperate for any kind of work, some employers paid people as little money as possible. The minimum wage law was passed to ensure that a person would be paid at least enough money to live on.

There are many exceptions to the minimum wage law. People who work for tips, such as waitstaff (situation 7), are not covered to the same extent as employees who work for wages only.

Businesses with less than $500,000 in average dollar volume of sales or receipts per year are not covered by the minimum wage laws. Professional people-such as doctors, lawyers, dentists, and architects-are also exempt from these laws.

Not everyone favors a minimum wage law. Those opposed to it say that it decreases the number of available jobs. Businesses simply hire fewer employees. What do you think?

2. Standard workweek. The Fair Labor Standards Act also sets 40 hours per week as a standard workweek. It requires employers to pay an overtime premium (that is, higher wages) for all hours worked over 40 hours in a week to certain employees who are paid by the hour. (An exception is agricultural workers who do not necessarily work standard hours.) Most salaried employees, though, are not paid for overtime.

The rights and obligations of the employer and the employee are generally the same for part-time and fulltime work. (Part-time work is less than 40 hours a week.) However, temporary part-time employees or those who work less than 20 hours a week usually are not eligible for benefits. Further, part-time employees do not receive overtime wages unless they work more than 40 hours a week.

3. Equal pay for equal work. The question of equal pay for equal work is also regulated by law.

The federal Equal Pay Act (1973) requires that men and women receive equal pay for substantially the same work. Val's salary (situation 9) appears to be discriminatory and illegal. Other federal acts have extended the requirement for equal pay to other groups likely to face discrimination.

A related question for courts is that of comparable worth of jobs. Women contend that jobs that traditionally have been held by women (such as nursing, teaching, and childcare jobs) offer less pay than do jobs held by men. Yet jobs that women traditionally have held may demand more skill or training. 

4. Rights Regarding Harassment.What if employees constantly ridicule another worker because of his or her religion? The courts have held that under the Civil Rights Act, employees have a right to workplaces in which they are not treated badly by fellow employees because of religion, race, or other factors. Similarly, employees have the right not to experience unwanted pressures of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can be suggestive remarks or unwanted advances. The Supreme Court recently clarified grounds for successful harassment lawsuits. A victim must only show that discriminatory behavior in the workplace creates an environment that is objectively hostile and abusive to a reasonable person as well as to him or herself. This definition includes behavior that detracts from the victim's job or discourages the victim from staying in the job or advancing in his or her career. The employer can be sued.

5. Right to a Safe Working Environment. As an employee, you also have the right as much as possible to a safe workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) enables the government to set health and safety standards for employees in interstate commerce. To carry out the standards, the law created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). If an employee believes that a workplace is unsafe, OSHA will inspect it. If the inspector finds unsafe conditions, improvements will be required.

OSHA has required that hand and foot guards, railings, better lighting, and many other safety devices be installed in workplaces. OSHA has also required that many hazardous substances be labeled.

Examples of Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) Requirements

OSHA Requirement Purpose
Fans / Ventilators To prevent workers from inhaling fumes
Special Clothing To prevent workers from absobing chemicals through the skin
Protective Eyeglasses To protect against flying debris or caustic substances
Alarm Signals To notify workers of leaks of dangreous substances
Showers after Work To prevent workers from carrying dangerous substances on their bodies outside the workplace
Health Screening, such as Chest X-rays To detect any problems early enough for effective treatment

A Georgia law-the Public Employee Hazardous Chemical Protection and Right to Know Act-provides further protection. It requires that employees be informed of the hazards of chemicals produced or used in their workplaces. Employers must label dangerous chemicals and also provide safety information through written matter and training programs. Employees also have the right to inform their physicians about the hazardous chemicals to which they are exposed.

The Georgia Department of Labor is responsible for inspecting and certifying elevators and other potentially dangerous equipment, including boilers and amusement park rides.

5. Right to Join a Labor Union. After you begin work, you'll make friends at the job. Some of your fellow employees may have common desires, suggestions, and complaints about work. You may decide to form a committee to talk to the employer about those matters. You may think that the employer will pay more attention to 10 or 20 employees than to 1 employee. In effect, labor unions evolved in this way to combat low wages, long working hours, and unacceptable working conditions.

Today, there are two main types of unions. First there are those whose members are in the same craft or profession. Examples would be unions of musicians or of electricians. The second type of union is that of people in the same industry. United Auto Workers is an example.

Contracts between employers and unions are called collective bargaining agreements. These agreements set pay scales, hours of work, and general working conditions in the workplace. The union represents all the employees as a group when it signs the contract with the employer.

In the United States, thousands of collective bargaining agreements govern millions of workers. Most of these contracts are the result of give-and-take (that is, negotiations) between unions and employers. For example, a union may want a pay raise of 75 cents per hour. The employer may want to be able to switch people to weekend work when necessary. Union leaders and company heads talk about what they want. They try to reach a compromise. In this example, the company may pay a 65 cents per hour raise. The union may agree to increased weekend work. Each issue is settled in this fashion.

If the parties cannot agree, the company and the union can use economic force against each other. The employer can "lock out" the employees. The employees can go on strike. In a lockout, the employer closes the factory until the union and the company come to some agreement. In a strike, the union says it will not work without a satisfactory contract. The workers refuse to go to work. They may form a picket line in front of the plant to discourage all workers and delivery persons from entering.

Whether a strike or a lockout, the economic forces are the same. The company loses the money it could have made. The employees do not get their paychecks. Generally, things are settled and a contract is signed. Actually, strikes and lockouts are infrequent. Most collective bargaining agreements are made without any lost work.

The Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (referred to as the Taft-Hartley Act) makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against employees because the employee is for or against the union. Say someone is fired for these reasons. The employer or theunion, whichever is responsible for the firing, is then liable for that person's lost pay. It is illegal for a firm not to hire someone because he or she is a union member or organize).

The Labor Management Relations Act governs private companies and their unions. It does not regulate public employers. In Georgia, for instance, state law forbids the state or a public school system from having a binding collective agreement with a union.

Does he have to join and pay dues?

It depends on where he lives. In most states, the union and the company can make contracts requiring employees to pay union dues. The idea is that because everyone benefits from the union-usually by getting a bigger paycheck-then everyone should support the union. In a minority of states, laws forbid such collective bargaining agreements. These laws are called right-to-work laws. The idea behind these laws is that no one should be forced to be a member or financial supporter of an organization.

Georgia is a right-to-work state. That is, it is not legal for an employer and a union to have a contract that requires each employee to join the union. Nor can the contract require an employee to pay dues to the union. Some states, on the other hand, are non-right-to-work states. In those states, a collective bargaining agreement exists between a company and a union, which means that employees could be fired for not joining the union or paying union dues. If Ron's factory (situation 11) is located in a non-right-to-work state, he could be fired.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004