What are the sources of my rights as an employee?

The rights of employees working in Maryland are protected by federal, state and local statutes, as well as by common law actions for breach of contract, and intentional and negligent unlawful acts. Most of the federal, state, and local statutes are enforced primarily by specific agencies. Common law claims must be entered through the state courts, which enforce such claims. However, Maryland is an at will state, which means that employers can terminate an employee for any reason that does not violate a statute or public policy.

What does the law provide regarding discrimination and sexual harassment?

Various laws provide that employees may not be treated differently because of their sex, race, religion, national origin, physical or mental handicap or age. For example, when two employees are equal in job performance, an employer can not give one a better raise because of the employee’s sex or race. It is not only unlawful to discriminate in hiring and firing decisions, but also in regard to promotions, pay rates, job assignments, overtime, layoff and recall or any other term or condition of employment. Under the Federal ERISA law, when facing a layoff, an employer may not select "older" employees for layoff to avoid having to pay him or her a pension.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discriminating against individuals with physical or mental disabilities. The Act requires employers in certain circumstances to make reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals so these individuals may be able to perform the essential functions of a job.

Supervisors and employees are strictly prohibited from sexually harassing other employees, whether the harassment results in tangible job harm such as a firing or demotion or other reprisal for refusing sexual advances, or intangible job harm stemming from severe and pervasive harassment. Creating a hostile work environment of a pervasive nature that is abusive to employees based on their gender also constitutes sexual harassment. Allowing employees to intimidate and harass other employees through lewd remarks, inappropriate touching or offensive jokes may be illegal harassment. Employers are required to have a complaint procedure in place and take prompt and reasonable efforts to remedy discrimination once it is known.

Which are the government agencies that can help me enforce my rights?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Maryland Commission on Human Relations are the federal and state agencies designated to enforce these laws. An employee who has been the subject of discrimination may file a charge against his or her employer with these agencies. A charge alleging discrimination generally must be filed with the appropriate agency within 180 days from the date of discriminatory act in order to be timely.

What are my rights with respect to unsafe working conditions?

Both federal and state laws exist that protect workers from unsafe working environments. Health and safety regulations set forth standards that employers must follow to protect workers from exposure to chemicals and other toxic substances; unsafe noise levels; unsafe work practices; and unsafe heat, cold or ventilation conditions. The regulations may require protective clothing for certain types of work and may also require employers to provide certain medical tests (e.g. hearing tests) at company expense. Complaints for violations of these laws may be filed with Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH).

What are my rights with respect to wages?

Federal law requires that employees in most industries be paid a minimum wage and overtime (one and half times the employee’s regular rate of pay) for hours worked over 40 per week. There are certain exceptions to the overtime requirements for supervisory and professional personnel, as well as for particular jobs such as salespeople who use telecommunications, and other remote services technology, such as fax, modems, e-mail, and the Internet, to perform their jobs; some computer professionals such as Systems Analysts or Programmers; and some industries such as agricultural enterprises. The law also sets forth minimum wages, which must be paid to construction workers on public work projects and to employees performing government contract service work (e.g. maintenance or janitorial work at a government building or facility). The Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor investigates and enforces violations of these federal laws. In addition, the state Attorney General’s office enforces the state wage law and can help collect unpaid wages to workers.

What are my rights if I'm a victim of a job-related injury?

Under the Workers’ Compensation laws, all employees are entitled to compensation for lost wages, permanent injuries, and medical costs for accidental injuries incurred during the course of employment. The law also covers compensation for occupational diseases. Claims for compensation for accidental injuries must be filed with the Workers’ Compensation Commission within two years of the date of injury. Written notification of an occupational disease must be given to the employer within one year from the date that he employee has knowledge of the disease. It should be noted that many employees think they have filed a claim only to find out that no claim has been filed. Claims may only be filed on official forms supplied by the Workers’ Compensation Commission.

In certain instances of job-related injuries, employees may not only make a claim against the employer, but also against third parties. Where a third party’s negligence has caused the job accident to occur, such as a truck driver being hit by a non-employee, the negligent third party may be liable for the victim’s injuries that are not covered by the compensation laws.

What is the Family and Medical Leave Act?

The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees workers unpaid time off from work for medical emergencies. Employers are required to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve month period for the:

  • Birth and care of an infant
  • Care of an adopted or foster care child
  • Serious health condition of an employee
  • Care of a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition

The Family Medical Leave Act applies to federal, state and local governments and to companies with more than 50 or more workers. Employees are eligible for FMLA leave after they have worked at 1250 hours for the employer during the previous 12-month period.

Can my employer retaliate against me if I file a complaint?

Described above are some of the numerous federal and state laws enacted to protect workers. In most cases, these rights can only be protected by filing charges with the appropriate government agency in a timely manner. Each one of these laws also prohibits an employer’s retaliation against an employee for filing a charge or complaint. Even if the employee is unsuccessful in having a complaint or charge corrected, the employee can not be disciplined or otherwise discriminated against for making the complaint. The law further protects any co-workers who assist or act as witness for the person filing the charge.

What does at will employment mean?

Without an employment contract or union or other collectively bargained contract, Maryland law generally considers workers to be employees "at will." Without a contract, an employer may hire and fire employees and determine all aspects of workers’ employment at his or her will as along as the employer does not violate any other law. For example, an employer may discharge a 20-year veteran employee for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all, if it is not for a discriminatory or other unlawful reason.

Even without a specific signed employment contract, some personnel manuals and other company policies, practices, and documents may be interpreted as creating contractual rights. Oral promises to provide certain benefits or wages in order to persuade someone to accept employment may also be considered to create such rights. Whether a contract has been created depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. If a specific written contract exists, either an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement (union contract), or an employer may use the legal process to enforce any portion of the agreement.

In Maryland, it is illegal to fire someone for reasons that are in violation of clear public policy. This kind of firing is often called abusive discharge. As an example, an employee who is discharged for refusing to commit an illegal act may have an action for abusive discharge against the employer.

What are the privacy rights of employees?

Under Maryland law, job applicants and employees may not be required to submit to a lie detector test either to obtain a job or keep one. An employer may not require a job applicant to answer any questions pertaining to physical, psychological or psychiatric illness, disability, handicap or testament that does not directly affect the applicant’s ability to perform the job.

Employers have a legitimate interest in monitoring employee performance in the workplace, especially their productivity, safety and efficiency. Recent advances in technology have resulted in employer using new methods of employee monitoring, including electronic monitoring of e-mail, telephone calls, and computer usage. The law does permit employers to conduct electronic surveillance, such as telephone monitoring, when it is done to serve legitimate business interest such as monitoring quality of customer service. The law allows employers to intercept and listen to only business-related calls. A personal call may not be monitored once it is determined to be one.

Employers are also permitted to monitor e-mail usage where the employer owns and provides the computer equipment and it is intended to be used for work purposes only. The law protects employees from an invasion of privacy by their employers in regard to their possessions and private lives, not their use of the employer’s property. The law prevents unreasonable intrusion upon an employee’s privacy, public disclosure of embarrassing private information; and publicly placing an employee’s reputation in a false light.

With regard to job references, employers may not communicate false information to prospective employers without possibly being subject to a lawsuit for character defamation. Employers are also prohibited from communicating certain other types of information about a former employee without the express consent of the employee.

What is the law regarding drug testing of employees?

Without a contract covering employment, employers are generally free to set terms and conditions of employment. Therefore, employers are free to implement drug-screening programs for employees and job applicants. Where a contract exists, the employee must determine whether a drug testing policy would violate that agreement.

Employers who require employees to be drug screened must have the test analyzed by a laboratory that is certified under state regulations. Additionally, employees who test positive for drugs have a right to the results of the test and an opportunity to have the test sample analyzed by a laboratory at the employee’s expense. There are similar requirements for applicants for employment and for contractors who are required to undergo drug screening by an employer. However, in public service jobs, drug testing may constitute an unlawful invasion of the employee’s privacy or otherwise be considered unlawful. Each case must be evaluated by the specific facts involved.

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