Sometimes you can spot a difficult work supervisor from miles away, but in other cases, everything goes fine at your workplace until you try to exercise your legal rights. One of the signs that you should run in the opposite direction is when your employer describes the workplace as “like a family.” A place of employment should be free of the kinds of behavior that make interpersonal relationships so fraught, like favoritism, guilt trips, ad hominem attacks, and passive-aggressive behavior. The good news is that you have legal protections against unfair, manipulative, and intimidating behavior by your employer, such as you do not have in most situations outside of work. The law protects employees from retaliation by their employers if they exercise their rights. You cannot sue your parents for disinheriting you after you complained that they treat your siblings’ opposite-sex partners better than they treat your same-sex partner, but you can sue your employer if they fire you under similar circumstances. To find out more about employer retaliation, contact the Bellevue employment discrimination lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP.
When is it Illegal for an Employer to Fire You?
Washington state laws allow at-will employment, and in fact, most employees in Washington are at-will employees. In an at-will employment relationship, the employee can quit their job for any reason, and the employer can fire them for almost any reason. Even if you are an at-will employee, your employer does not have the right to fire you for a legally protected action, which means that they cannot fire you as punishment for exercising your rights under a federal or state labor law.
These are some situations in which it is against the law for your employer to fire you, even if you are employed on at at-will basis:
- You complained that you were not getting fair pay, such as if your employer paid you less than $13.69 per hour (the state minimum wage for non-tipped employees), did not pay you the overtime rate for hours past the 40th one that you worked in one week, or did not give you your fair share of your workplace’s tip pool
- You filed a workers’ compensation claim after a work injury or disputed your employer’s denial of your workers’ comp claim
- You requested a reasonable accommodation for a disability
- You reported a safety hazard or OSHA violation in your workplace
- You filed a discrimination complaint against your employer or participated in an investigation about your employer’s alleged discrimination against other employees
- You requested an unpaid leave to which you are entitled under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Which Actions by Your Employer Count as Retaliation?
If your employer terminates your employment in response to your exercise of any of the legal rights of workers, this is known as retaliation, but employer retaliation can also take other forms besides the unjust termination of employees’ jobs. The legal definition of employer retaliation includes any adverse action taken by an employer against an employee to punish the employee for exercising their legal rights. The following actions can count as retaliation if your employer does them because you reported your employer’s misconduct or spoke up about unfair treatment:
- Suspending you from your job or placing you on administrative leave
- Subjecting you to disciplinary action such as placing you on probation or writing you up
- Demoting you or denying you a promotion
- Reducing your pay
- Reassigning you to undesirable tasks or an undesirable work schedule
- Threatening to withdraw sponsorship of your work visa or green card or that of a member of your family
- Creating a hostile environment in the workplace to make you want to quit your job or just to make life difficult for you
- Giving you an unfairly negative performance review
- Providing a negative reference when you apply for a new job
What to Do if You are in Danger of Retaliation by Your Employer
Employer retaliation is as ugly as it sounds; your employer might try to ruin your reputation within your professional field or even try to take away your work visa or temporary green card. It is not easy to deal with when your direct supervisor retaliates against you for exercising your legal rights. It is even worse when no one else in your workplace, not the coworkers you deal with on a daily basis or even the human resources department, will join you in standing up for what is right. Working with an employment discrimination lawyer starting from the time that the problem gets more serious than just a tolerable annoyance can make the process less stressful. Your lawyer can help you stay focused on the goal of getting the money your employer owes you or stopping your employer from interfering with your career after you no longer work for them.
Employer retaliation is especially a big danger for workers who report employers who defraud or steal from the federal government, such as by filing false claims with Medicare or Medicaid. There is even a special law to protect workers who speak out in those cases. The federal False Claims Act outlines a process for filing a qui tam action (also known as a whistleblower claim), where an employee notifies the Department of Justice that their employer has been enriching itself by filing false claims with a federal entity. The DOJ will do an investigation, and if they decide to sue, then the employee who filed the qui tam action is entitled to a percentage of the judgment that the employer must pay. (By then, it is almost always a former employer.) The provision that entitles the whistleblower to a portion of the judgment is there to compensate the employee for the financial losses they will have sustained because of employer retaliation.
Contact a Bellevue Employment Lawyer About Employer Retaliation
An employment discrimination lawyer can help you protect yourself from your employer’s efforts to cause problems for you if you speak up about workplace discrimination or otherwise exercise your legal rights. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Bellevue, Washington to set up a consultation.