Editor’s note:

This article is part of Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It’s born, in part, out of our Democracy SOS fellowship, where we are one of 21 newsrooms across the country reimagining how media reports on critical issues facing our democracy. 

At a time of displeasure with the two-party political system, the Great Resignation, debates, about the future of work, and the reality that the American Dream is out of reach for too many of us and the next generation, it’s clear labor organizing is a topic worth reporting. 

If you have story ideas, scoops, or would like to learn more about the Labor, Democracy & the Common Good series, please reach out to our newsroom. We welcome your feedback.

As soon as you turn 14 in Georgia, you are eligible by law to enter the job market. While every worker can face workplace discrimination or exploitation, it’s often younger, more inexperienced workers who are more at risk. 

Regardless of your age, it’s good to know how to protect yourself from injustice in the workplace. Here are a few tips.

Know your basic rights as a youth worker

In  Georgia, you are always entitled to the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, even if you’re under 18. Unlike some states, Georgia sets no additional, lower minimum wage for minors.

However, if you are under 18, there are limits on the amount of time you are allowed to work. If you are 14 or 15, you are not allowed to work more than three hours on school days, or over eight hours on other days, even if you decide to do so voluntarily. You also can only work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and you can’t work more than 18 hours during a school week or more than 40 hours other weeks.

Even though these restrictions don’t apply to 16 and 17 year olds, employers still legally have to respect the hours they spend in school. For high-school students of any age, your employer cannot legally ask you to come into work during school hours. If your boss fails to respect your responsibilities as a student, they can face fines or other penalties. 

Get paid for ALL of your time

Many young workers believe that they must always be “on the clock” and ready to report to work, even outside of designated work hours. It’s true that in Georgia, your employer can fire you for failing to report to work if you’re asked to come in on a day you have off. 

However, you are always entitled to compensation for all of the time that you work, as inconsequential as the time may seem. Even if your boss does something as simple as ask you to come in 30 minutes early to set up shop or prepare a table before you officially clock in, you are entitled to be paid at least the $7.25 per hour minimum wage for that time spent working.

It’s illegal for an employer to refuse to pay an employee for “off the clock” hours. Even if the employee voluntarily decides to work those hours, the practice is still illegal–and could land an employer in trouble, even in a state as historically “anti-employee” as Georgia. 

Mind your Ps and Qs

Be mindful of your attitude on the job, because employers commonly use some Georgia employment laws  to circumvent or invalidate job discrimination claims. 

“You always want to make sure that you perform your best, because usually when employers are defending discrimination cases, they look at your performance and say, ‘Well, he was just a bad performer,”’ said Anita Bala, a lawyer at Buckley Beal, an Atlanta law firm that represents workers in employment disputes. 

While it may not be fair, ensuring that your employer has few negative things to say about your work performance can protect you in case you are treated unfairly at some point, Bala said. You don’t want any discrimination complaints that you file to be disregarded, simply because you showed up late to work a few times. 

Even though federal law protects workers from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age (if 40 or older), religion, nationality, and disability, Bala explained, it can be difficult to prove that discrimination is, in fact, the basis for poor treatment–or even fired.

Keep in mind that Georgia is an “at-will” employment state, meaning that employers have the right to fire workers without notice and for any reason, as long as it isn’t deemed discriminatory. 

Discrimination in the workplace can take many different forms, Bala said, such as  pay gaps (getitng paid less than someone else in a similar job), verbal abuse, harassment, or having to work more hours than other employees. 

File discrimination complaints ASAP

Employees often neglect to report workplace discrimination, Bala said, generally because they fear retaliation. 

If you ever feel as if you’ve been treated unfairly on the job, follow your employers’ anti-harassment or anti-dsicrimination procedures, and report the behavior immediately, she said. “If you feel you’ve been a victim of discrimination, you should ask the employer for their policy on how to report it. And then you should follow that policy, so the employer has to do something about it.”

Most workplaces have detailed procedures for employees to follow to report discrimination, she added. Often, employees can file a discrimination complaint without the perpetrator knowing, which can help circumvent any potential retaliation. 

If your job doesn’t provide any specific policies to protect yourself, or the response you receive is inadequate, don’t hesitate to file an official complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Under federal law, Bala said, employers are required to investigate reports of discrimination in a timely manner. If your employer does not take initiative to investigate, they can be subject to fines, lawsuits, or even, in extreme scenarios, jail time. 

Even if they don’t do anything to resolve the problem, notifying an employer that you are being treated unfairly is important if you want to take legal action later. If it’s on the basis of any federally protected categories, like race or gender, that can be substantial grounds for a discrimination lawsuit, Bala said. 

When employers defend themselves in these cases, she said, they’ll often feign ignorance about the problem by citing an employee’s failure to inform them of their troubles. “An employer can say, ‘Well, we have a policy for reporting complaints and you didn’t do anything about it–and so we didn’t know that you were complaining.” 

How the EEOC can help

If you decide you want to sue your employer for job discrimination, you must file a complaint with the EEOC first.

There are strict time limits for filing your discrimination complaint with the EEOC, depending on the situation. In some cases, you only have 180 days to report discrimination. 

“Contact us immediately if you believe your employer is discriminating against you,” the EEOC advises on its website. “We can help you determine whether your job complaint is within the correct time limit or whether another organization can help you.”

RESOURCES FOR YOUTH WORKERS: 

  • And here’s information from other federal agencies about your protections against discrimination and harrassment.
  • Check the Department of Labor’s YouthRules! website for more about protections for youth workers, including links to federal and state labor laws.     

Kailen Hicks, a rising senior at Galloway School, is interning with Atlanta Civic Circle.

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