As an employee, you have certain
rights and protections. Some of these rights and protections depend on
how many people your employer employs, but others apply even if you are
your employer’s only employee. You also have responsibilities at work
that extend beyond just doing the work you are assigned. We will briefly
cover some of the most common and important employment rights,
protections, and responsibilities, but there are many others that may
apply to you. For additional assistance, you may be able to obtain
information from your employer’s human resources department, your union
(if applicable), various government agencies (e.g., the state or federal
Departments of Labor), or an attorney.
In employment, to "discriminate” means to treat people differently for
some reason. As long as the reason for the discrimination is not an
illegal one, employers are free to discriminate. For example, choosing
the most qualified person for a job is discriminating among the
candidates, but it is not illegal discrimination. Employers have to make
decisions and choices that discriminate among people all the time, or
else they would not be able to run their organizations.
Employment discrimination becomes illegal when the reason, or part of
the reason, for the employment decision was because of a person’s
legally protected characteristic. Some of the most common
characteristics protected under Iowa and federal law include: race,
color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age and disability. In
Iowa, persons protected from age discrimination include those aged 18
or above. Under federal law, only those who are 40 years of age or older
are protected from age discrimination in employment. Some local
governments in Iowa have local ordinances that provide additional
protected classes. For instance, if you work within the city limits of
Des Moines, you are also protected from employment discrimination based
on sexual orientation. You must belong to at least one protected class,
and be subjected to a negative employment decision, in order to show
that illegal discrimination occurred.
In addition, your employer must employ enough persons to be covered by
the various anti-discrimination laws. Under Iowa law, an employer must
have at least four employees to be covered by the Iowa Civil Rights Act,
which governs all eight protected classes listed above. Under federal
law, an employer must have at least 15 employees to be covered by Title
VII (race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy and national origin) and the
Americans with Disabilities Act (disability), and at least 20 employees
to be covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (age).
Anti-discrimination laws prohibit
employers from discriminating against employees because of protected
class status in decisions involving hiring, pay, benefits, training,
promotion, lay off, termination, and any other term or condition of
employment. As you can see from this list of prohibited actions, it is
mainly managers and supervisors who are able to commit illegal
discrimination in the workplace.
If your disability or religion interferes in some way with your ability
to perform the essential functions of your job, you must bring this
problem to your employer’s attention. Once the issue between your job
and your disability or religion is known, your employer has a duty to
try to reasonably accommodate you. You cannot get any accommodation you
request. Your employer is entitled to choose the cheapest and least
burdensome of those available, as long as the accommodation is
effective. In most cases, something can be worked out between you and
your employer to allow you to do your job. In some cases, the
accommodation you need will be unreasonable or too burdensome on the
employer, and your employment may have to be terminated. Under these
circumstances, the termination of your employment is because of your
religion or disability, but it is not illegal. However, if your employer
refuses to even consider accommodations for you at all, or refuses to
make a reasonable accommodation, that violates the law.
Harassment is a special form of discrimination. Just like
discrimination, not all harassment at work is illegal. Workplace
harassment becomes illegal when it occurs because of a protected status,
and when it interferes with a person’s employment or work performance.
For instance, harassment of someone because she wears blue socks, and no
other reason, is not technically illegal.
Unlike discrimination, most all
harassment in the workplace is highly inadvisable and should be
eliminated, even if it is not technically illegal. Harassment for any
reason is just not necessary and, if tolerated, can escalate to illegal
forms of harassment. Also unlike discrimination, anyone can commit
illegal harassment in the workplace—not just managers and supervisors.
This is where one of your workplace responsibilities comes into play.
You must not harass others.
Discrimination and Harassment Complaints
If you believe you have been discriminated against, or harassed, in your
employment because of your protected class status, you should follow
your employer’s policy and procedure for filing an internal complaint.
If no such policy or procedure exists, you should alert a management
official, or the human resources department, about your potentially
You may also file a complaint or
charge with either the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, or the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, if you believe you have been
discriminated against, or harassed, in your employment. If you work
within the city limits of a city that is large enough to have a city
human rights commission, you may have another option of filing your
discrimination or harassment complaint there. You do not need an
attorney to file a complaint with one of these commissions, and usually
the commission staff will help you complete the required forms.
Timely filing your complaint with
one of these government agencies, external to your employer, preserves
your right to one day sue for relief in the court system. Don’t wait too
long before making such a filing because the filing time limits are
very short and are strictly followed. To timely preserve your rights
under Iowa’s discrimination law, you must file your complaint within 180
days of the employment action that you believe was discriminatory or
harassing. To timely preserve your rights under federal discrimination
laws, you must file your complaint within 300 days of the employment
action that you believe was discriminatory or harassing.
Once you have notified your employer, or a government agency, of your
good faith belief that you have been illegally discriminated against or
harassed in your employment you have engaged in what is called a
"protected activity.” From that point forward, you are protected from
"retaliation.” Retaliation is an adverse employment action that was
taken because of your protected activity. This protection exists even if
it is later determined that your original complaint of discrimination
or harassment is not viable. Retaliation protection is a powerful tool
meant to encourage employees to report suspected violations of the
Worker’s Compensation Rights
If you are injured in the course of your employment, you are entitled to
compensation and protections provided under Iowa’s Worker’s
Compensation law. A compensable injury is one that interferes with a
bodily function, or impairs bodily health, and that grew out of or
occurred in the course of your employment. Some injuries occur over time
from the accumulation of small and/or repeated actions. Others occur
because of a single acute and traumatic event.
All employers, no matter how small,
are covered by worker’s compensation law. There are many types of
benefits provided under the worker’s compensation law, including payment
of medical expenses, paid leave for work time lost due to the injury
and/or treatment for it, rehabilitation benefits, death benefits,
industrial disability benefits, and disability benefits.
If you are injured in the course of
your employment, you should immediately notify your employer of the
injury and how it occurred—but do not wait more than 90 days after the
discovery of your injury to report it to your employer.
Rights Upon Termination
If you are terminated from your employment, you may be eligible to
receive unemployment insurance benefits for a period of time to make up
for the loss of wages. All Iowa employers must pay into the unemployment
compensation fund, which means that all workers have the potential to
receive such benefits.
Whether you will receive benefits depends on the circumstances that
caused the termination of your employment, as well as your ability and
willingness to work in other suitable employment. For instance, if you
voluntarily resign, or are terminated for certain types of misconduct,
or for a reason that is not "attributable to” your employer (i.e., your
fault, not your employer’s fault), you may not be eligible for
unemployment benefits. Even so, it is usually worth the effort to file
for unemployment benefits if you are terminated, even if you are
eventually deemed ineligible to receive them.
To file a claim for unemployment insurance benefits, you must contact the nearest office of Iowa Workforce Development.
Continuation of Health Benefits
If you participated in a group health insurance plan provided by your
employer, you may be eligible to continue those benefits for a period of
time after the termination of your employment. This is commonly
referred to as "COBRA rights” based on the applicable federal law that
created these rights.
The acronym "COBRA” actually means
Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. There is usually one
COBRA bill passed every year by Congress. It was the 1986 COBRA bill
that contained the provisions requiring the continuation of health
benefits that we are discussing here. Annual COBRA legislation is
generally far-reaching and impacts many different federal laws. Thus,
the use of the acronym "COBRA” for the right to continue health benefits
is somewhat of a misnomer because COBRA actually means much more.
Regardless, this special use of the term has stuck, and you will likely
hear it used primarily in the context of the continuation of health care
Federal COBRA rights apply to
employers with 20 or more employees. Such rights require that a
terminated employee be able to continue health insurance (including
dental or vision) for the employee and covered dependents, for up to 18
months. In some narrow circumstances, this continuation of benefits may
be extended to a maximum of 36 months. If you elect to continue your
insurance benefits under COBRA, you will be responsible for paying the
full premiums on a timely basis. At the end of your period of benefits
eligibility, you are also to be provided with information on how you can
convert these benefits to a private, individual insurance plan.
Iowa employers that are not large
enough to be covered by COBRA (i.e., less than 20 employees) must
provide terminated employees with a COBRA-like choice. Iowa law requires
the continuation of accident and health insurance (not dental or
vision) for the employee and any of his or her covered dependents, for
up to 9 months after termination, as long as the employee pays the full
premium on a timely basis. Like COBRA, Iowa law includes the right to
convert your health insurance to a private, individual insurance plan at
the end of the eligibility period.
Neither Iowa nor federal law
requires that a terminated employee be given any option to continue or
convert life insurance benefits.
If you are hired at $7.00 per hour and you work 40 hours, don’t assume
that you will be paid $280.00. As an employee, you have a responsibility
and obligation to pay taxes on the income you receive. Employers are
required to withhold certain taxes from your wages, and remit those
withholdings to the government, to help you fulfill this obligation.
When you start a new job, you should
be required to complete a W-4 form. This form helps your employer
determine how much to withhold from your wages to meet your tax
obligations. Taxes withheld from your wages include federal income tax,
federal social security taxes and Medicare, and state income tax. The
amount that will be withheld from your pay to cover taxes will depend on
the number of exemptions (or allowances) you claim on the W-4 form, and
the ever-changing tax tables provided by the state and federal
government. The more exemptions/allowances you claim, the lower your tax
burden and the lower the amount to be withheld from your wages.
Within 30 days of the end of the
calendar year, each of your employers must provide you with a W-2 form
showing the total wages you earned and taxes (by type) that were
withheld and remitted to the government on your behalf. You will use the
W-2 to prepare your state and federal tax returns, and determine
whether you will receive a refund or have to pay more to fulfill your