KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: Questions & Answers for Connecticut Employees

Q.        What rights do employees have in the workplace?

A.        Generally, employment in Connecticut is “at-will,” which means that an employer can make unilateral changes to the employment relationship (including changes to an employee’s duties, hours and/or wages) and can terminate or discipline an employee at any time, for any reason, so long as it is not a reason expressly prohibited by law.  In other words, even if an employor takes action against an employee for reasons that are unfair or undeserved, the employer may not be acting illegally.  

 

Q.        Does employment at-will apply to everyone?

A.        Union members covered by a collective bargaining agreement and non-union employees who have entered into an individual employment contract with their employer might not be considered at-will employees and may have additional rights and protections as specified in the agreement or contract.

 

Q.        Are there laws that protect at-will employees?

A.        Yes!  There are a number of Connecticut and Federal laws that provide rights and protections to at-will employees such as anti-discrimination, harassment and retaliation laws, laws governing wages, family and medical leave laws and laws protecting whistleblowers. 

 

Q.        What is employment discrimination?

A.        The law does not require that employers be nice to their employees, nor does it require that employers always be fair or treat everyone in the same manner.  However, it is unlawful for an employer to refuse to hire or promote, to discipline, to terminate, to harass or to otherwise treat an employee differently because of the person’s:

·        Race

·        Color

·        National Origin

·        Religion

·        Age (under Federal law, this means if you are age 40 or older)

·        Sex/Gender (including pregnancy and pregnancy related medical conditions)

·        Sexual orientation (in Connecticut and some other states)

·        Physical, mental or learning disability (as defined by the disability laws)

·        Genetic Information

·        Marital Status (in Connecticut)

·        Criminal Record (in state employment & licensing only).

 

Q.        What should an employee do if s/he thinks s/he is being unlawfully discriminated against on the basis of one of the reasons listed above?

A.        Talk to an attorney, preferably one with experience in labor and employment law, about what has occurred.  The attorney can help you understand your rights and how to best protect yourself, as well as discuss whether to assert a claim of discrimination (whether informally by making your concerns known to the employer, or formally by filing a discrimination complaint with the appropriate agency).  There are usually very strict deadlines within which to bring formal complaints of discrimination, so it is very important to talk to an attorney early.  (In Connecticut, a complaint must be filed with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities within 180 days of the adverse employment action). 

 

Q.        What is sexual harassment?

A.        Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination defined by unwelcome sexual conduct which affects the terms and conditions of a person’s employment or which creates a hostile work environment.  Not all offensive conduct rises to the level of unlawful sexual harassment.  In order for something to be considered sexual harassment under the law, it must be of a sexual nature or be based on hostility because of gender; be unwelcome; be severe or pervasive; and affect the victim’s pay, benefits, work conditions or work environment.  Sexual harassment can include:

·        sexual propositions accompanied by threats to your job

·        lewd comments or suggestions

·        obscene jokes or emails

·        distributing or displaying offensive or pornographic materials

·        inappropriate or unwanted touching

·        sexual gestures.

 

Q.        What should an employee do if s/he thinks s/he is being sexually harassed?

A.        Some preliminary steps to consider might include - talking to the harasser and telling that person to stop the offensive behavior; documenting the situation; writing a letter to the harasser, to a supervisor or to human resources; and reviewing the employer’s sexual harassment policy and complaint procedure.  In some circumstances an employee might have to first utilize the employer’s internal policies and procedures in order to later successfully bring a legal action.  You should also consider talking to an attorney, preferably one with experience in labor and employment law, about what has occurred.  The attorney can help you understand your rights and how to best protect yourself, as well as discuss whether to assert a claim of sexual harassment (whether informally by making your concerns known to the employer, or formally by filing a complaint with the appropriate agency).  Like discrimination, the deadlines within which to bring a formal complaint are very strict, so it is generally helpful to talk to an attorney early.

 

Q.        What can an employer do to an employee who has complained about discrimination or sexual harassment?

A.          It is illegal for an employer to “retaliate against” an employee because s/he opposed something that s/he reasonably believed constituted unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment.  But what exactly constitutes “retaliation” is a complicated question, the answer to which often depends on the specific facts at issue.  If you think your employer is taking adverse action against you because you have previously complained about discrimination or harassment, then you should talk to an experienced labor and employment attorney about your rights. 

 

Q.        Is it illegal for an employer to bully an employee?  What is a hostile work environment?

A.        Unfortunetly, there is no general anti-bullying law that applies to workplace situations.  This means that it is usually not a violation of any workplace law if a coworker, supervisor or employer engages in conduct, even if it is intentional and undeserved, that is hostile, overly critical, mean, unfair or even humiliating to the employee. 

           However, if the coworker, supervisor or employer is subjecting the employee to such treatment because of the employee’s race, religion, gender, disability status, national origin, sexual orientation, age or other protected status, and the conduct rises to the level of a “hostile work environment,” then it may be a violation of the anti-discrimination laws.  If you believe you are being subjected to a hostile work environment because of such protected status, you should talk to an experienced labor and employment attorney. 

 

Q.        How much does an employer have to pay an employee?

A.        For most jobs, an employer must pay at least the minimum wage, $10.10 per hour in Connecticut (that amount will increast to $11/hour as of 10/2019; $12/hour as of 9/2020; $13/hour as of 8/2021; $14 as of 7/2022; and $15 as of 6/2023).  Some service employees such as waitstaff or bartenders can be paid less than the minimum wage (at least $6.38 (waitstaff) or $8.23 (bartenders)) as long as their tips and wages together add up to the minimum wage.  The law requires employers to pay all employees, regardless of citizenship, for every hour worked.    

 

Q.        When does an employer have to pay overtime and how much must it pay?

A.        Generally an employer has to pay overtime, time-and-one-half of wages, to any employee who works more than 40 hours in one week.  But an employer does not have to pay overtime at all, no matter how many hours worked, if an employee is “exempt” under the law.  Employees who fit into the category of executive, administrative or professional employees may be exempt and therefore may not be entitled to overtime pay.  Who exactly is exempt is a complicated question, the answer to which often depends on the specific duties performed by the employee.  If you think you are not being paid overtime for which you are entitled, you should talk to an experienced labor and employment attorney and/or contact the CT Department of Labor.

 

Q.        Can an employer pay a man a higher rate of pay than a woman in the same position?

A.        The law requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work if their jobs are substantially equal in terms of skill, effort and responsibility and are performed under similar conditions.  Pay differences are permitted when they are based on seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production or a factor other than sex.  If you think you are being paid less than someone of the opposite sex who works in the same position, you should talk to an experienced labor and employment attorney. 

 

Q.        Are employers allowed to ask about arrests, criminal charges or convictions? 

A.        As of January 1, 2017, employers in Connecticut (including the state) are prohibited from asking about a prospective employee's prior arrests, criminal charges or convictions on an employment application, unless the employer is required to do so by a state or federal law applicable to that job, or if the position the applicant is seeking requires a security or bond.  

 

Q.        Are employees entitled to time off from work for medical reasons?

A.        It depends.  If the reason is due to a work related physical injury or illness, then Connecticut’s law regarding “Worker’s Compensation” likely does provide for time off from work.

On the other hand, the Connecticut and the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act laws (FMLA) require that employers with at least 50 employees provide eligible employees with time off from work, 12 or even 16 weeks, in order to care for themselves, a child, parent, or spouse in the event of a “serious medical condition” (including pregnancy).  FMLA leave can be taken all at once - up to the maximum number weeks, or sometimes on an "as-needed" basis (also known as "intermittent" leave).  But whether an employee is eligible for FMLA leave also depends on how long s/he has worked for the employer and upon the nature of the medical condition.  Employees who take leave under the FMLA may have to follow the employer’s rules about giving advance notice and/or about providing certification from a treating doctor. 

In addition, under Connecticut's Paid Sick Leave Act, employers with at least 50 employees must provide paid sick leave - up to 40 hours per calendar year - to "service workers."  Under this law, accrued sick leave can be used for the worker's own illness or injury (including to obtain medical treatment or care), as well as for the illness or injury of a child or spouse (including medical care or treatment). "Service workers" include, but are not limited to - restaurant workers, nurses and health service workers, janitors, security guards, bank tellers, child care workers, retail salespersons, cashiers, hairdressers, bus and taxi drivers, receptionists, secretaries, and hotel and counter clerks.  

Employers cannot retaliate against employees who exercise rights, including the right to take time off of work, under the worker’s compensation law, FMLA laws or Connecticut's Paid Sick Leave law.  

 

Q.        What rights and protections does an employee who takes FMLA leave have?

A.        Although, the employee must be allowed to take time off of work, the law does not require that the leave be paid.  Whether leave is paid or unpaid is up to the employer.  However, the employer is required to continue the employee’s health, life, disability, pension and other benefits during the leave, at the same cost as if the employee was still working. 

Once the employee’s leave ends (at the end of the 12 or 16 weeks), s/he is entitled to be returned to his/her original position or, if that position is no longer available, to a similar position with similar pay and benefits. 

Employers cannot deny or interfere with an employee’s rights under the FMLA laws, nor can an employer discriminate or retaliate against an employee during his/her leave or upon the employee’s return from leave. 

 

Q.        What if I am a person with a disability?  What rights do I have in the workplace?

A.        If you are a person with a “disability” your employer cannot discriminate against you or harass you because of your disability.  But the term "disability" has a very particular definition under Connecticut and Federal law - and not all medical conditions or injuries are "disabilities" under these laws.     

Also, an employer must provide a qualified applicant or employee who has a known disability with a “reasonable accommodation” if requested, and if doing so would not be an “undue hardship” for the employer.  A reasonable accommodation is a change to the work environment or in the manner in which the job is usually done to help a disabled individual perform the duties of his/her job.  Reasonable accommodations can include making facilities readily accessible, job restructuring, changing a work schedule, reassignment to an open position, buying equipment or devices, or making changes to exams, training materials or policies.  But, an employer does not have to eliminate or lessen quality or production standards in order to accommodate a disabled employee.  If you are disabled and believe your employer has refused to provide you with a reasonable accommodation, you should talk to an experienced labor and employment attorney. 

There are some limited circumstances when an employer can require a job applicant to answer medical questions, take a medical exam or identify a disability.  An employer may not ask an applicant whether s/he is disabled or about the nature or severity of a disability, but it can ask about the individual’s ability to perform specific job functions.  Also, an employer can offer a job on the condition that the applicant answer medical questions or take a medical exam, but only if the questions or exam are required for all employees entering that job.  Once an employee has been hired and has started working though, an employer can ask medical questions or require an employee to take a medical exam in order to evaluate a request made by that employee for a reasonable accommodation or if the employer believes that the employee is not able to perform his/her job successfully or safely because of his/her medical condition. 

 

Q.        What is a “whistleblower” and what protections are afforded to whistleblowers?

A.        A "whistleblower" is a legal term.  In Connecticut, a “whistleblower” is someone who has knowledge of corruption, unethical practices, violation of laws, mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse or authority, or danger to the public safety occurring in any state department or agency, quasi-public agency or any state contract, and who reports such knowledge.  Connecticut law protects whistleblowers from retaliation or threats of retaliation for having made the report.  If you think you are being retaliated against because of whistleblowing activity, contact an experienced attorney immediately as the time limit for bringing legal action may be very short (even as little as 30 days). 

            Many people incorrectly assume that an employee who reports similar issues or who speaks up about matters of public concern is a “whistleblower” and is protected from retaliation.  That is not always the case where the employee works for a private employer.  In some circumstances there might be some protections under the Connecticut and/or the U.S. Constitutions or under state law.  But an employee who believes s/he is being retaliated against because of reporting suspected misconduct or illegal activity or for his/her protected speech should consult with an experienced labor and employment attorney.   

 

This pamphlet was prepared by Attorneys of Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly, P.C., 557 Prospect Avenue, Hartford, CT www.lapm.org  It is based upon Connecticut and Federal law in effect at the time of its publication (May 2019) and is intended for general informational purposes.  It should not be considered as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an experienced Connecticut attorney about an individual situation. 

 

 

 

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