Talking About Wages at Work – What are Your Rights

The idea of sharing wages amongst workers in the same company has sparked heated debate and opinions from all sides. To understand the concept in more detail, it is important to contextualize the practice of “salary talk” in a legal sense.

Rise in Workers Being Fired Due to Wage Discussion

Recently, a woman from Illinois was fired from her job when she discussed her wage with coworkers. She took to the popular sharing platform Reddit where her story began to pick up steam. The woman in question, who has remained anonymous, was fired after only her second day on the job – indicating that her workplace made quick work of those who decided to discuss their salaries. The story, picked up by Newsweek, highlights the question of workers’ rights in regard to free speech in the workplace.

Lexi Larson, a Denver resident, found herself in a similar position to that of the anonymous Reddit poster. Larson shared her experience looking for work in the tech industry via TikTok. The young professional painted a picture of how she moved from $70,000 to $90,000 in yearly salary to encourage rising tech professionals to do the same.

After her employer found her TikTok account, Larson took protective measures to protect her job by deleting much of her content. Despite her efforts, she was fired on the grounds of “safety concerns.” According to Larson, the company was concerned that she would post something private to her social media, potentially exposing sensitive material to a wide audience without their consent.

According to Seattle-based attorney and founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center Matthew Bergman, Larson’s videos showed little reason to fire her after only two weeks on the job. Another attorney gave a comment to USA Today, stating that fired employees are usually given the boot for “disciplinary or performance reasons.”

The Government Steps in to Address Unequal Pay

Despite the involvement of social media in these cases, recent history shows that the idea of wage secrecy has been hotly debated. Former United States President Barack Obama promoted the desire to equalize pay between men and women – an extension of his wish to promote “equal pay for equal work” more broadly.

Yet the concern goes back even further as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA) ensured that private-sector employees had the right to perform “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This clause essentially makes it legal for workers to use their collective power to discuss wages to negotiate for higher ones.

Yet still, a survey from 2001 found that over one-third of companies had active policies that prohibited the share of salary and compensation specificities. This ever-present reality causes people to question their rights, considering employers are still able to get away with such policies.

Challenges in Enforcing the Prohibition on Wage Secrecy Policies

Limitations to the NLRA have made it more difficult to control the prohibition of sharing details regarding compensation. Firstly, limitations to the definition of “employee” means that companies may have workarounds in order to keep their restrictive policies in place. One example is the practice of employing a heightened number of “supervisors” and “independent contractors” as these groups are excluded from this rule. Agricultural workers are another party that is not included in many of the protections afforded by the NLRA.

The NLRA likewise does not apply to workers of federal, state, or local governments, interstate railroads, and airlines. Human resource employees may also be restricted from discussing salaries as they have access to other workers’ private salary information.

Even more concerning than the 2001 study was a survey in 2011 by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In the report, they detail that half of American workers believe that the discussion of their wage information is outright prohibited or discouraged, potentially leading to reprimanding. The culture of forced wage privacy is one that seemingly contradicts the language of the NLRA.

Larson ultimately returned to her former job, leaving spectators wondering just how protected their rights are. Many Americans consider this daily as many companies seemingly go about unlawful actions regarding workers’ rights unpunished. Even if an afflicted employee wants to contest the actions of the company, many corporations go out of their way to construct different stories to shimmy their way out of disciplinary action from the government. Furthermore, some companies may take it upon themselves to discriminate against employees in other ways in an attempt to intimidate them into quitting or otherwise leaving the company.

Localized Laws and Attorneys to the Rescue

Skillful attorneys can correctly leverage the NLRA and its language in order to sue for compensation. This is especially important where the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) falls short, sometimes failing to properly probe and investigate violations of the NLRA alone.

Recent executive actions are also often used by attorneys to defend workers’ rights in a court of law, one such example being the Non-Retaliation for Disclosure of Compensation Information Executive Order of 2014. Furthermore, experts commenting on the anonymous Redditor’s firing highlighted the importance of attorneys leveraging state laws that protect workers for wage secrecy in their home state of Illinois, as exists in other states as well.

In fact, California has a relatively recent piece of legislation that explicitly addresses this topic. The Equal Pay Act spells out that any company cannot bar an employee from “disclosing his or her own wages, discussing the wages of others, inquiring about another employee’s wages, or aiding or encouraging any other employee to exercise rights under the Equal Pay Act.” Further wage-related actions from California, such as the recent Broad Pay Transparency Law, have made the state a leading beacon of wage-related workers’ rights.

As employers make rounds on their employees to make sure they are not discussing wages, attorneys, and local legislation have made it possible to take legitimate action against their legal oversteps. With stories twisted and discipline harshened, the topic of wage rights is at the forefront of many people’s minds.