How to Advocate for Your Safety in the Workplace

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Advocating workplace rights

With the tight labor market, workers are in a good position to demand safe working conditions and a workplace free of discrimination. Luckily, workers who want to advocate for themselves and stay at their job have various tools at their disposal.

Educate Yourself on the Laws and Policies That Protect You

If you work or live in Illinois, you are most likely covered by the Illinois Human Rights Act, and the Illinois Occupational Safety and Health Act. You and your employer may also be covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act. Additionally, state and federal laws protect whistleblowers who report violations of the law to government agencies or authorities. If you workplace has one, check the company handbook for its policies on workplace safety and discrimination. Your employer should follow its handbook, though it is not required to.

Generally, your employment is “at will,” meaning it can end at any time for any reason or no reason. However, an employer cannot treat you differently and worse than other employees because of your disability, sex, age, marital status, pregnancy/parental status, national origin, ancestry, citizenship, gender presentation, gender identity, and sexual orientation (these are called “protected classes”). Your employer cannot harass you or terminate your employment because of your protected class, or because you reported wrongdoing or took job-protected leave (such as FMLA).

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Labor provide information on federal laws and the Illinois Department of Human Rights and Illinois Department of Labor provide information on state ones that enforce anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws.

Advocate for Yourself and Keep a Record

Keep track of each time that you experience a work situation that is unsafe or unfair. You can do this by texting/emailing your personal email or keeping notes on your phone. You might talk to trusted co-workers about their experience to see if this is unique to you or happening to others.

If you decide to report discrimination to your boss or HR, you should keep a record of it. Follow up every telephone call by sending a very polite email recapping the conversation and any next steps.

If you cannot email someone, take a screen shot of the call log on your phone and make a note of what you talked about. If the employer doesn’t respond or responds by terminating your employment, you should contact an employment lawyer. The National Employment Lawyers Association maintains a directory of employment attorneys. It’s important to reach out to an employment lawyer as soon as you think your employment may be at risk.

Consider Group Advocacy

One of the most effective ways of improving working conditions is forming a union. Only 30% of workers need to sign a petition to require the employer to bargain with your union. Even informally banding together to protest working conditions can lead to positive changes in the workplace. You can find more information about this process on the website of the National Labor Relations Board.

Raising concerns by yourself about workplace safety, such as not following mask mandates and COVID-19 protocols, can be intimidating. It feels safer to request action from an employer as a group, which is less likely to experience retaliation than an individual. If everyone comes together with specific asks, it can go even better.

If COVID is your concern, you could present ideas such as (1) greater distance between workspaces, (2) incentives for wearing masks properly over nose and mouth, (3) meetings held in outdoor spaces, (4) greater flexibility in scheduling shifts, (5) paid time off to get vaccinated or when forced to quarantine. An employer is forced to pay attention when multiple people present the same concerns. As always, follow up the meeting with an email documenting what you discussed and next steps.

If your employer retaliates against you for banding together with other workers, you may be able to file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board within six months (180 days) of the event. If you report a violation of workplace safety rules to your boss, management, the authorities, or OSHA, and your boss retaliates against you, you may have a legal claim for retaliation. You only have 30 days from the violation to file a complaint with OSHA. You have one year to file a claim in court under the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILCS 174.

Preserve Any Legal Claim

If you have been discriminated against, or retaliated against for complaining about discrimination on the basis of your disability, sex, age, marital status, pregnancy/parental status, national origin, ancestry, citizenship, gender presentation, gender identity, or sexual orientation, you only have 180–300 days to file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state agency that enforces any state antidiscrimination laws.

Filing a charge is a necessary before filing a lawsuit against your employer. The charge explains that your employer discriminated against you, and asks the agency to investigate. The agency may assign an investigator who will examine your evidence and issue a determination. Usually, the determination states there was no substantial evidence of discrimination and the charge is dismissed. Then, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit. If you do not file a complaint within 90 days, you lose your right to file claims under ADEA, ADA, Title VII and the IHRA.

If you want more guidance or information about your rights in the workplace, you can call the EEOC at (312) 872-9744 or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (312) 814-6200. It is always best to call a government agency right when it opens. You can also contact the talented team at The Prinz Law Firm about your case.