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Your Rights at Your First Salaried Job

Making the switch from working as an independent contractor or hourly worker to earning a salary is a big change. Salaried positions are typically assumed to have better benefits, working hours, and working conditions than other roles. In many cases, that’s true! 

However, some employers use salaries to hide the fact that employees are being treated unfairly. Workers who receive a salary are still protected by federal and state employment laws. If you’ve just entered the world of salaried work, here’s what you need to know about your rights on the job and what you can do if you believe your employer is violating the law. 

How Are Salaried Jobs Different?

Employees who receive a salary are paid a flat amount per month or year for their work. If they take a sick day or vacation time, their paycheck is not affected. This is in contrast to hourly workers, who are paid by the hour and only get paid for the time they work. Because of this difference, salaried workers normally do not receive overtime pay. They are considered “exempt” employees, while hourly workers are “nonexempt.”

Salaried positions are also different from independent contractor roles. Salaried workers often have routine working hours, but this is not a guarantee. Employers may enforce a standard 9-to-5 schedules, but they may also require people to stay late, work weekends, or be “on-call” for no extra compensation. While an employer cannot cut someone’s pay if they don’t do this work, they can fire salaried employees for refusing as long as the employment contract permits it. Furthermore, in California, employers must provide benefits like health insurance and time off, cover unemployment and workers’ comp, and provide protected leave to most salaried employees.

In contrast, independent contractors can choose when and how they get work done as long as they meet their contract’s deadlines and quality requirements. They may also get paid a flat rate yearly, but their clients do not have to manage their income taxes, provide health insurance, or offer leave.

In short, salaried workers theoretically have more flexibility, higher income, and better benefits than other workers. However, this heavily relies on employers respecting their staff’s rights.

Salaried Workers’ Rights in California

Exempt workers are not owed overtime but have various other rights in California. Some of the most important rights you have when working for a salary include: 

The Right to Minimum Wage

The federal right to minimum wage applies to everyone, regardless of how they’re paid. California law, in particular, makes it clear that workers are owed at least the highest applicable minimum wage, regardless of how their employment is structured. 

For example, California’s statewide minimum wage will rise to $16 an hour on January 1, 2024. If someone works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, they should earn $33,280 at minimum. Anyone making a salary working full-time in California must earn at least that much, or they are not getting the minimum wage. 

The Right to Correct Classification

If a nonexempt employee works more than eight hours in a day or more than 40 hours in a week, they have the right to be paid time and a half for the extra hours. This includes some people who are paid a salary. 

In California, a salaried worker is only classified as exempt if they earn twice the minimum wage – in 2024, that threshold will be $66,560. Anyone who makes less than this for full-time work is considered nonexempt and eligible for overtime. If your employer has misclassified you as an exempt worker despite having you work full-time for less than that amount, you may be owed unpaid overtime. 

The Right to Fair Employment

Every worker in the country has the right to fair treatment within the workplace. This includes:

  • Equal pay for equal work: Companies must pay people who perform “substantially equal” work the same. Roles are substantially equal if they involve roughly equivalent skills, effort, responsibility, and conditions. For example, two accountants with similar duties who work at the same office should be paid the same, regardless of gender, health, or ability. 
  • Freedom from discrimination: Workers should not be discriminated against because of protected characteristics like gender, race, religion, disability status, or sexual orientation. 
  • Protected leave: In California, anyone who works for a company with five or more employees for 12 months and performs 1250 hours of work for the company during that time is eligible for protected family and medical leave. 

If you are not offered fair pay or protected leave, or if you suffer discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, you can take legal action. 

The Right to Safe and Healthy Working Conditions 

All workers should be given safe and healthy workplaces. Employers must meet OSHA and Cal/OSHA standards to protect staff’s mental and physical health, regardless of how they pay people. This includes:

  • Keeping working environments free from physical hazards
  • Providing ergonomic furniture and equipment to prevent repetitive stress injuries
  • Providing instruction on safe lifting techniques if necessary
  • Maintaining a discrimination and harassment-free workplace culture

If an employer doesn’t maintain safe conditions, it may be violating your rights.

What You Can Do If Your Employer Isn’t Respecting Your Rights

No matter how you’re paid, you have rights in the workplace. Even if you receive a salary, you’re still owed fair pay, equal treatment, and a safe and discrimination-free workplace. If you think your employer isn’t respecting your rights, you can get help. The first step is to talk to the experienced attorneys at Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP. Our skilled team has spent decades advocating for employees facing discrimination, unpaid wages, and harassment. Schedule your consultation with our firm today to learn how we can help you get the fair treatment you deserve under California’s employment laws.

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