Can Your Boss Do That?

Jeremy Gantz

The answer to this post's title will most certainly be "Yes" if you don't let your boss know that he (or she) can't screw you over. In other words, laws protecting workers aren't real until they're enforced. And given the U.S. Department of Labor's horrendous absenteeism during the last eight years, enforcement has increasingly fallen to workers themselves. With hundreds of thousands of Americans being laid off every week – 4 million jobs have vanished since the recession began in December 2007 – workers need to know and understand the laws that (in theory) protect them, and use them to ensure they receive proper and timely payment, along with the ability to collect unemployment and workers compensation benefits. But chances are you didn't go to law school, and even if you did, you probably didn't focus on workplace law. Bet you can't answer these questions off-hand: Can my boss close the business down without notice? Can I be fired for no reason? How can I get my final pay? That's where Can My Boss Do That? comes in. The brand-new site, launched Thursday by Interfaith Workers Justice, the national organization that mobilizes the religious community to support workers' struggles, offers up a thorough and accessible cache of information on workplace laws around the country. I work for a magazine dedicated to workers' rights and the struggle to obtain them, so I was a bit embarrassed to realize that workers in Illinois must be paid for accrued vacation time, regardless of whether they quit or were fired. I had no idea. Head to this page and select your state. Voila, the minute you're laid off (not that it's inevitable, but hey, it's an ugly world out there) you'll be able to make clear and immediate demands on your employer. And if your boss is a complete jerk, you'll be able to credibly threaten to file a complaint with your state's labor department or the U.S. labor department. Of course, there's no guarantee that a complaint to the Washington about your boss's illegal practices will result in an investigation – indeed, a July 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the department's Wage and Hour Division… …inadequately investigated complaints from low-wage and minimum wage workers alleging that employers failed to pay the federal minimum wage, required overtime, and failed to pay employees their last paychecks…Examples of inadequate WHD responses to complaints included instances where WHD (1) inappropriately rejected complaints based on incorrect information provided by employers, (2) failed to make adequate attempts to locate employers, (3) did not thoroughly investigate and resolve complaints, and (4) delayed initiating investigations for over a year and then dropped the complaint because the statute of limitations for assessing back wages was close to expiring. Abysmal stuff, and let's hope Hilda Solis makes her new department actually do its job, rather than sleeping at the wheel. Still, even if Solis is as good as everyone believes she'll be, they'll be no investigation into your employer until you complain. And to do that, you need to know the law. You'll get nothing at all unless you try, and often just the threat of legal action will be enough to bring a recalcitrant employer to heel.

Jeremy Gantz is an In These Times contributing editor working at Time magazine.

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