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10 Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do

Lampert Law Office, LLC  June 27, 2024

Just because someone's in charge doesn't make them untouchable.  

Understanding the limits of what a boss can legally demand or prohibit is crucial for employees. This knowledge empowers workers to protect their rights and ensures that they are treated fairly in the workplace. Knowing these boundaries can help prevent exploitation and harassment, fostering a healthier and more productive work environment.  

As an employee, you have certain rights and protections against unfair treatment at work. The following practices are illegal for employers and bosses to do in the workplace: 

1. Refuse to Pay Overtime 

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Missouri labor laws, employers must pay overtime to eligible employees at a rate of one and a half times their regular pay for hours worked over 40 in a workweek.  

Failing to pay overtime can have serious legal consequences for employers. Misclassification of employees as exempt from overtime, when they do not meet the specific criteria, is a common but illegal practice. Employers may also attempt to evade paying overtime by asking employees to work "off the clock" or by not keeping accurate time records. These actions not only violate the FLSA and Missouri labor laws but can also lead to hefty fines, lawsuits, and damage to the company's reputation.  

Employees who believe they have been wrongfully denied overtime pay have the right to file a complaint with the Department of Labor or pursue legal action to recover unpaid wages, liquidated damages, and potentially attorney’s fees. 

2. Deny Meal and Rest Breaks 

Missouri law mandates that employers must provide a meal break of at least 30 minutes if the employee works an eight-hour shift. These meal breaks are typically unpaid, but employees must be completely relieved of all work duties during this period for it to count as an unpaid break. If the employee is required to perform any work tasks during their meal break, it must be compensated as work time. 

While the law does not explicitly mandate rest breaks, if they are offered, they must be paid if they are 20 minutes or less. This means that short rest periods, even those as brief as five or ten minutes, count as paid work time. Rest breaks are beneficial in maintaining employee productivity and well-being, which is why many employers offer them even though they are not strictly required by law. However, employers need to be aware that once they adopt a policy of providing rest breaks, they must comply with the payment provisions. 

Employers who fail to adhere to these rules regarding meal and rest breaks can face legal repercussions. Employees who are denied their rightful breaks or who are not compensated for short rest periods can file complaints with the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. They can also seek back pay and other damages through legal action. Thus, ensuring compliance with meal and rest break regulations is not only a legal obligation but also essential for fostering a fair and healthy workplace environment. 

3. Discriminate Based on Protected Characteristics 

Employers must treat all employees and job applicants fairly, and make employment decisions based on merit and work performance alone. 

Discrimination based on protected characteristics is strictly prohibited under both federal laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and state laws such as the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). These laws safeguard employees and job applicants from unfair treatment in various aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, pay, job assignments, training, and other employment terms and conditions. 

When an employer makes employment decisions based on stereotypes, assumptions, or biases about a person's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information, they not only undermine workplace equality but also expose themselves to significant legal risks. Discriminatory practices can lead to investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR), which enforce these anti-discrimination laws. 

If an employee believes they have been subject to discrimination, they can file a charge with the EEOC or the MCHR. The agencies will then investigate the complaint, and if they find evidence of discrimination, they can take further action, which may include facilitating a settlement between the employee and the employer or bringing a lawsuit on behalf of the employee. Plus, employees themselves have the right to seek remedies through the court system, which may result in employers being ordered to provide compensatory damages, punitive damages, back pay, reinstatement, and coverage of attorney's fees. 

It's also important for employers to understand that retaliation against an employee for filing a discrimination charge or participating in an investigation is illegal. Retaliation claims are taken very seriously and may result in severe penalties for employers. 

Employers are encouraged to implement comprehensive anti-discrimination policies, conduct regular training sessions to educate their workforce about these laws, and take immediate corrective actions if any violations occur. Creating an inclusive, fair, and respectful work environment not only protects employers from potential legal liabilities but also promotes a healthier and more productive workplace culture. 

4. Retaliate Against Whistleblowers

Whistleblower protection is a critical component of maintaining ethical practices and safety standards in the workplace. Under federal laws such as the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), along with Missouri state laws, employees have the right to report violations without fearing retaliation from their employer. This includes reporting illegal activities, unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, and other breaches of legal and ethical standards. 

Retaliation against whistleblowers can take many forms, including termination, demotion, denial of benefits, reduction in hours, reassignment to less desirable positions, and outright harassment. Such actions are not only illegal but can lead to severe penalties for employers, including fines, compensatory damages to the affected employee, and reputational harm. 

To further protect whistleblowers, laws often provide provisions for anonymity and confidentiality, making it harder for employers to identify and retaliate against individuals who come forward. Employees who believe they have been retaliated against for whistleblowing can file a complaint with agencies like OSHA or the Missouri Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MOSHA).  

If the agency finds evidence of retaliation, it can take enforcement actions, which may include ordering the employer to reinstate the employee, pay back wages, and compensate for any damages suffered. 

Employers should foster an open and transparent work environment where employees feel safe reporting issues without fear of retaliation. This involves implementing clear anti-retaliation policies, providing channels for anonymous reporting, and ensuring that all complaints are thoroughly investigated and addressed promptly.  

By safeguarding whistleblowers, employers not only comply with legal requirements, but also contribute to a culture of accountability, integrity, and safety within their organization. 

5. Ask Prohibited Questions During Job Interviews 

During job interviews, employers must carefully navigate the types of questions they ask to avoid violating federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Certain questions are considered prohibited because they can lead to discriminatory practices or reveal protected characteristics that should not influence hiring decisions.  

Under federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), as well as Missouri labor laws, employers are restricted from inquiring about an applicant's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.  

For example, asking a candidate about their marital status, plans to have children, or their religious practices can be seen as discriminatory, even if the intent is benign. 

Questions that solicit information about an applicant's age, disability, or medical history are particularly sensitive under the ADA. Employers must refrain from asking whether an applicant has a disability or how many sick days they have taken in the past. Instead, they should focus on whether the candidate can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. 

To comply with these regulations, employers should frame their interview questions around the candidate’s qualifications, skills, and ability to perform the job duties.  

Candidates who believe they were asked illegal questions during an interview may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR). These agencies investigate discrimination claims and can act against employers found to be in violation of anti-discrimination laws. The potential consequences for employers include fines, legal fees, and damage to their reputation. 

To safeguard against these risks, employers should train their human resources personnel and anyone involved in the hiring process on what questions are legally permissible. Implementing a structured interview process with standardized questions can also help ensure compliance and promote a fair and unbiased hiring procedure. 

Understanding and adhering to the legalities surrounding interview questions not only prevents discrimination but also supports an inclusive and fair hiring environment, helping to attract a diverse and qualified workforce. 

6. Misclassify Employees as Independent Contractors 

Employees are entitled to various protections and benefits, such as minimum wage, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and workers' compensation, that independent contractors do not receive. So, under federal laws the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations, employers must correctly classify their workers.  

When employers misclassify employees as independent contractors, they avoid paying for benefits and complying with labor regulations, which can lead to substantial cost savings. However, this practice is illegal and can result in hefty fines, back payment of wages and benefits, tax liabilities, and compensation for damages.  

The Department of Labor (DOL) and IRS can audit employers and impose penalties for violations. Misclassified workers can also file lawsuits to recover lost wages and benefits. 

To avoid misclassification issues, employers should carefully evaluate worker roles using the appropriate testing standards and seek legal advice if necessary. Implementing written agreements, maintaining accurate records, and conducting periodic audits can also help ensure compliance. Proper classification not only upholds legal obligations but also fosters a fair and transparent work environment. 

7. Unreasonably Enforce Non-Compete Clauses  

Non-compete clauses limit an employee's ability to work for competitors or start a competing business within a specific area and time frame after leaving an employer. These clauses can protect a company's business interests, such as trade secrets and client lists, but must be reasonable and legally compliant to be enforceable. 

Under Missouri law, non-compete agreements are generally enforceable if reasonable in scope, duration, and geographical area. The employer must show that the restriction is necessary to protect valid business interests. Missouri courts consider factors such as the employee's role, the competitive landscape, and potential harm to the employer's business. 

Federal law, through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidance, also influences non-compete clauses. The FTC has raised concerns about misuse, especially when applied to low-wage workers or overly broad restrictions. 

Recent legislative developments reflect a shift toward protecting employee mobility and preventing unfair practices. Many states, including Missouri, are re-evaluating non-compete agreements to ensure they are reasonable and not overly restrictive. New laws set stricter guidelines on duration, geographic scope, and the type of work covered. There is increasing scrutiny on non-competes for low-wage workers, with some jurisdictions banning them for employees earning below a certain income threshold. The aim is to balance protecting business interests with employees' rights to seek better opportunities. 

Employees who believe a non-compete clause is unreasonable can contest its enforcement in court, focusing on the restriction's breadth and its impact on their ability to find work. Employers should craft non-compete agreements with clear, reasonable limitations and consult with an employment lawyer to ensure legal compliance. 

8. Inhibit Employees' Right to Discuss Wages 

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees have the right to discuss wages, hours, and working conditions with their colleagues. Employers cannot enforce policies that prohibit these conversations. 

Employees discussing wages is a protected activity that falls under the scope of "concerted activities" for mutual aid or protection. This means that not only do employees have the right to discuss their pay openly, but they also have the right to do so without fear of retaliation or punitive actions from their employer. The rationale behind this protection is to promote transparency and fairness in the workplace, as discussions about wages can illuminate disparities in pay and help workers collectively bargain for better compensation and working conditions. 

Despite these protections, some employers may still attempt to implement policies or practices that discourage or outright prohibit wage discussions. These prohibitions can come in the form of employee handbooks, verbal mandates, or broader company culture. However, such policies are unlawful and can result in significant consequences for the employer, including claims filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), potential fines, and liability for damages.  

To avoid these pitfalls, employers should foster an environment that encourages open communication and transparency regarding wages and ensure that their policies align with federal and state labor laws. 

9. Violate Privacy Rights

Employers in Missouri must respect employees' privacy concerning personal belongings and information. Unannounced searches of personal lockers or access to private information without consent can be illegal unless there is a reasonable work-related justification. 

In practice, this means that employers should clearly define and communicate any privacy policies to their employees, ensuring that all parties understand the limits and expectations regarding personal privacy in the workplace. Employers are permitted to monitor workspaces for legitimate business reasons, such as maintaining security or ensuring productivity, but these actions must not overreach.  

For example, random and invasive searches of employees' personal spaces, such as desks or lockers, should be avoided unless there is a specific and justifiable cause. Additionally, employers should obtain employee consent before accessing personal information or conducting surveillance, and any data collected must be handled with the utmost confidentiality to protect against unauthorized access or breaches. 

Employees have the right to expect a degree of privacy in their personal communications and belongings while at work. This includes protecting personal identification information and other sensitive data from unwarranted scrutiny. When privacy rights are violated, it can erode trust and morale, leading to a hostile work environment and potential legal repercussions for the employer. Employees who feel their privacy rights have been infringed upon can seek recourse through legal channels, including filing complaints with the relevant labor authorities or pursuing civil litigation.  

By respecting privacy rights, employers not only comply with legal standards but also foster a respectful and dignified workplace culture. 

10. Terminate or Punish Employees for Exercising Legal Rights 

It is illegal for employers to terminate or punish employees for taking legally protected actions, such as filing a workers' compensation claim, taking family or medical leave, or serving on a jury. 

Termination or punishment of employees for exercising their legal rights is distinct from retaliation against whistleblowers in that it specifically targets individuals for actions that are explicitly protected by law outside of whistleblowing activities.  

For instance, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees are entitled to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage. Similarly, employees have the right to file a workers' compensation claim if they are injured on the job, or to serve on a jury without fear of job loss or punishment. These rights are guaranteed to support employees in balancing work with personal and civic responsibilities without the risk of losing their livelihoods. 

Retaliation against whistleblowers, on the other hand, involves punishing employees for reporting illegal, unethical, or unsafe practices within the organization to appropriate authorities. This can include reporting violations of laws, regulations, or company policies.  

While both practices are illegal and undermine workplace fairness and safety, termination or punishment for exercising legal rights specifically addresses the suppression of statutory protections intended to promote a safe and equitable work environment. 

Employers must distinguish between corrective actions for legitimate business reasons and punitive actions that infringe on these protected legal rights, ensuring employees can perform their duties and exercise their rights without fear of retribution. 

Speak With an Employment Law Attorney

For expert advice on employment law matters, reach out to Lampert Law Office, LLC. If any of these illegal practices have affected you, seeking legal counsel is a vital step. Protect your rights with the assistance of Raymond B. Lampert, serving employees throughout Springfield, Missouri, and the surrounding areas of Joplin, Jasper, Taney County, and Christian County.