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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 problematic situation.

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 anti-discrimination laws.

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
Unemployment Benefits
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 benefits.

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.

Employment Taxes
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 tax obligations.