What laws prohibit employers from retaliating against their employees?
There are many different laws that prohibit employer retaliation. Nearly every employee protection law includes its own corresponding antiretaliation provision. In Washington State, these include the Industrial Insurance Act (known more commonly as “Workers Compensation”), the Minimum Wage Act, the Washington Law Against Discrimination, and the Paid Family Medical Leave Program.
Federal law has similar provisions, including under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
I am an at-will employee without an employment contract. Am I protected from retaliation?
Yes. While employers may generally terminate at-will employees for any reason or no reason at all, they cannot retaliate against an employee for exercising legal rights or opposing an unlawful practice.
I think my employer is doing something illegal. But what if I’m wrong and the practice is legitimate? Can my employer retaliate against me for speaking up then?
Generally, an employee is protected from retaliation as long as he or she raises a legitimate concern in good faith. Not everyone is an attorney and anti-retaliation laws generally recognize that people should not be penalized for raising what they believe to be legitimate concerns. Indeed, employers themselves should want their employees to feel free to identify problems without fear of retaliation so that the employer can fix those problems. That said, employees who are concerned about a questionable workplace practice may want to consult with an employment lawyer before deciding whether to report it to their employer.
A co-worker has alleged an unlawful practice or is being investigated. Can I be retaliated against for telling the investigator information supporting the co-worker or giving testimony favorable to the co-worker?
Generally, no. Anti-retaliation rules typically protect those who testify in or otherwise assist in a proceeding opposing an allegedly unlawful practice. That said, you should be mindful of other obligations you may have to your employer such as contractual promises to keep certain information confidential and the general duty of loyalty owed to an employer.
My employer retaliated against me, but what can I do if I can’t afford a lawyer?
Many of the laws designed to protect workers from unfair practices or retaliation include provisions to help employees find a lawyer. These include rules allowing an employee who prevails in a lawsuit against his or her employer to not only recover their damages, but the reasonable legal fees and other costs needed to get that result. Such laws are designed to incentivize lawyers to take on discrimination, wage and hour, and retaliation cases, even for low-wage workers. Depending on the facts of your case, an attorney may be able to represent you on a contingency basis, meaning the law firm would only recover its fees if there is verdict or settlement in your favor.
Even if you cannot get a lawyer, many states have government agencies that may be able help employees recover compensation from employers who violate the law. For example, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has a program to assist workers who believe their employer violated wage, overtime, break, leave, or retaliation laws. You can start the process online.
Likewise, the Washington State Human Rights Commission has a program to assist employers who suffered employment discrimination and provides its own online complaint form.
While Washington State’s employment laws tend to be more employee-friendly than their federal counterparts, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have similar guidance for filing complaints online.
Keep in mind that there are often time limits for filing complaints with government agencies and that they can be surprisingly short.