Imagine this scenario: You’ve worked at a job you have had for a few years. You like your work. You get along so well with your coworkers that you feel comfortable enough to discuss your pay with them.
However, discussing pay with coworkers violates a rule in your employee handbook prohibiting the discussion of pay with coworkers. As a result, your employment is terminated once management finds out. The exact reason listed on your separation notice: “Discussing pay with other employees.”
Unfortunately, many working people do not have to imagine this scenario. They have actually been fired for discussing their wages with their coworkers. Even more work at jobs where employers have adopted policies, either written or verbal, prohibiting employees from discussing their wages with one another. However, what many workers, employers and others working in supervisory positions do not know is this: These policies are usually illegal.
It is a common misconception that employers have a right to fire employees for talking about their wages. Although such discussions can sometimes feel like a taboo, under most circumstances your employment cannot be legally terminated for discussing your pay with your coworkers.
This is not a new law, either. Passed by Congress in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects the rights of private sector employees (with some exceptions) to engage in “concerted activity.” This means that employees have the right to discuss things that impact their work, such as:
• Wages — including compensation, bonuses, salary, pay and structure of pay
• Hours — lack of or too much, or who is getting which shifts
• Working conditions — including discipline, temperature, internal investigations, supervisors or managers, arbitration agreements, safety and working assignments
Also, the NLRA prohibits employers from interfering with the exercise of these rights. This means that any rule — verbal, written or electronic — that prohibits employees from discussing their wages, hours or working conditions may violate the NLRA.
The purpose of the NLRA is not just to prevent violations of employee rights, but also to encourage employees to exercise their rights without fear. You have the right to talk about your wages with your fellow employees, and you should talk about your wages. It is one of the most effective ways to make sure you are getting paid what you are worth.
Employers often strive to create a culture of secrecy around wages. This enables them to discourage underpaid employees from asking for higher wages and to avoid addressing pay equity issues. Through discussions with their coworkers about wages, employees are placed in a better position to negotiate higher wages for themselves. This can result in increased job satisfaction and serves as a powerful tool to battle pay inequality.
As many Americans face the threat of COVID-19 at their jobs, it’s important for workers to know that protected “concerted activity” also extends to discussing the safety of working conditions during the pandemic. Workers can discuss the lack of personal protective equipment, the need for hazard pay and other unsafe working conditions. Workers can also circulate petitions, engage in discussion with their supervisors and otherwise call on their employers for better COVID-19 protections, and they cannot be legally fired for it.
Contrary to popular belief, the NLRA doesn’t just deal with union/management issues like organizing and collective bargaining. The right of employees to engage in concerted activity is protected even if there is no union, or even union organizing activity, at the workplace.
If you think your employer has violated the NLRA, you can contact your regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to file a complaint. The NLRB website is at nlrb.gov and the NLRB’s Nashville office can be reached at 615-736-5921.
You can also reach out to the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. We are a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal help to low-income residents of 48 counties across Middle Tennessee. We have helped clients in the past make claims against their employers for unfair labor practices. If your employer violates the NLRA, the NLRB can impose serious consequences. The employer may have to repay your lost wages and give you your job back.
For more information about the Legal Aid Society, visit las.org. We can be reached by phone at 800-238-1443.
Alix Rogers is a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Murfreesboro office. Krishna Ammisetty is an English graduate of Vanderbilt University and a Legal Aid Society intern.