Understanding Your Legal Rights

The United States legal system is based on a framework of rights and responsibilities. All workers in the United States are protected by Employment, Labor, and Immigration laws, even if you are not an American citizen. This guide is intended to serve as both a brief introduction to your rights under United States law and as a guide to your responsibilities when exercising those rights.

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In general, your rights come from specific statutes or regulations passed by local, state, or federal legislatures and agencies. Federal laws apply in every state, so if you believe the law has been broken and your rights violated, the federal government provides information and assistance.

Employment/Worker Rights and Labor Protections

A key component of laws that protect employees is explicit protection for those who seek to enforce their workplace rights. There are many government agencies that provide resources online or by phone and can answer any questions you have about anti-retaliation provisions and other aspects of the laws described below.

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Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
Also known as the “Wage/Hour” law, the FLSA provides minimum wage requirements, overtime requirements, child labor regulations, and equal pay provisions for most employees. Overtime pay is required for most workers who are paid an hourly wage.

Overtime of 1.5 times the normal pay rate for hours worked beyond the normal 40-hour workweek is standard. Exceptions to the overtime rule exist and are based on managerial responsibilities, employer sector (public or private), language in any collective bargaining agreement/contract which might be in place, position and job training. Salaried workers are often not eligible to receive overtime pay.

You can contact the Department of Labor by phone at the Wage and Hour Division’s toll-free help line Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time:
1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243) and TTY: 1-877-889-5627

William Wilberforce Act of 2008
This Act makes several changes to nonimmigrant visa classification criteria, visa processing requirements, and the grounds for inadmissibility. The changes under this provision of this law, relate to the legal rights of certain employment or education-based nonimmigrants under Federal immigration, labor, and employment laws. Download brochure

Protection from Workplace Discrimination

On the Federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the government agency in charge of enforcing Title VII, the ADEA and other related employment laws. Title VII is a Federal law that protects workers against discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex (also referred to as gender). These categories are known as “protected classes” under the law.

Every state has similar provisions and state agencies that can also provide information and assistance. These organizations are commonly referred to as FEPAs, or Fair Employment Protection Agencies. A comprehensive list of these state agencies can be found here.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
The ADEA prohibits discrimination in hiring, employment, or termination against applicants and employees age 40 and over with certain very limited exceptions.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with a disability if they can perform the essential functions of the job with no special accommodations, or if they can perform such functions with special accommodations which are “reasonable” based upon the size of the company, the nature of the job and the costs of the accommodations.

Equal Pay Act (EPA)
The EPA applies to all employers covered by the FLSA, and prohibits discrimination based on gender in the payment of wages for jobs of equal skill, effort, and responsibility that are performed under similar working conditions. Exceptions are provided for pay differentials based on seniority, merit, or some other bona fide factor other than sex (e.g., education, training, specialized skills, and experience). To find your local office, click here. For general information visit the EEOC Web site or call 1-800-669-4000.

Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave when an employee or covered family member has a serious health condition that requires medical care or treatment and a physician certifies that an employee’s leave is necessary. You have the right to up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave on the birth or adoption of a child, to care for seriously ill family members or to recover from your own illness. To be eligible for this leave, you must have worked for 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours for the same employer with more than 50 employees.

National Alliance for Filipino Concerns
The mission of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns is to:

  • Protect and advance the rights and welfare of Filipinos by fighting for social, economic and racial equality;
  • Respond to the basic needs and interests of Filipinos in the US through education, action and national unity;
  • Promote Filipino heritage as a positive cultural identity and contribution to US society; and
  • Pursue the call for international peace, based on social justice.

Labor Laws and Worker Protection

Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
Although the INA is primarily directed at employers and makes it unlawful for an entity to employ any individual who is not authorized to work in the U.S., the INA also includes anti-discrimination provisions intended to protect employees who are not covered by the EEOC. If you are employed by an organization with more than 3 and less than 15 employees, than the INA protections apply to you.

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
The NLRA prohibits most employers from engaging in “unfair labor practices,” including discriminating against employees who choose (or decline) to engage in union-related activities. Protected activities include joining a union or asking others to join, banding together collectively for “mutual aid and protection” (whether or not a union is involved), seeking to deal on a group basis with the employer about working conditions; and engaging in other concerted activities for the purpose of negotiating more favorable employment terms.

The NLRA is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency created by Congress. The NLRA guarantees the right of employees to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected group activity with or without a union, or to refrain from all such activity. To learn more about what the NLRB does, or to file a complaint, visit their Web site or call 1-866-667-NLRB. To search for the NLRB office closest to your location, click here.

Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)
OSHA applies to most employers and imposes a general duty to maintain a safe place to work. OSHA also gives employees the right to file complaints about workplace safety and health hazards. Further, the Act gives complainants the right to request that their names not be revealed to their employers.

Contract Rights

A contract is a legally binding document that spells out the rights and obligations of all of the parties involved in the agreement.

Contracts create mutual obligations between two parties – and these obligations, if properly created, are considered legitimate legal rights of each party in an American court.

While contracts are viewed as a set of promises that can be enforced under the law, they are only considered enforceable if they meet certain legal requirements. In certain instances, a contract is not enforceable, or valid, if all conditions have not been met. Essential elements to include in a contract are place of employment, units, salary, employee benefit, orientation, and any other agreement details.

  • Should my contract be in writing?
    It is preferred, but not necessary. A contract does not have to be in writing in order to be binding and enforceable. In most instances, health professionals and educators come to the United States to personally sign a written contract with the organizations who recruit them. The signature means you have read and agree to fulfill all terms as written.
  • What if I do not understand everything in the contract?
    Ask questions. Before signing a contract you have the right to ask questions about any of the terms (words used) or provisions (promises made) before you sign it. If possible, consult an attorney or another expert for further information. The contract may limit your rights to fix issues that arise in the future. Do not sign a document you either do not understand or were told will be revised at a later date.
  • Do I have a right to a copy of the contract?
    Yes, you absolutely must hold on to a full, signed copy of the contract (also known as an “executed copy”). Your contract is the only proof you have of the promises made between you and the recruitment company or employer organization. When you sign the contract with a recruiter, you are making a promise to meet the obligations in that contract in exchange for the recruiter meeting their obligations to you.

For more information on this topic, check out our Education Module Series.