Number One: Basics about Gender Discrimination
Employment in Minnesota is at-will, unless you are in a union or have an employment contract. What this means is that your employer can terminate you at any time, for any reason, even if that reason is unfair or untrue.
However, your employer cannot terminate you for an illegal reason. Examples of illegal reasons to terminate a woman include: because she is a woman, or because she gets pregnant or has children to care for. Of course, employers will hardly ever come out and say that this is the reason they’re terminating someone. But it can often be deduced from all of the circumstances that the true reason for the termination is an illegal one. For example, a woman who has a strong performance history at her job tells her boss she’s pregnant. Suddenly, her boss, who previously only had praise for her work, becomes hyper-critical, and starts writing her up for small, vague, or non-existent “performance problems,” and then terminates her within weeks of her disclosing her pregnancy. This is considered evidence of pregnancy discrimination, and could potentially form the basis for a lawsuit. If you believe you are being discriminated against at work because of your sex, pregnancy, or another illegal reason, it’s best to report that discrimination to a supervisor or Human Resources employee, in writing, to document your concerns. If that doesn’t resolve your situation, consulting with an attorney can provide additional options.
Number Two: Basics about Sexual Harassment
Harassment at work is illegal, but only if you are being targeted for harassment due to an illegal reason, such as your sex. Unfortunately, it’s not illegal to be a jerk! Harassment is considered based on sex if it is sexual in nature, if the harassment includes gendered slurs, or if only women are being targeted for harassment.
To be illegal, sexual harassment must be “severe or pervasive.” This typically means that the harassment must be frequent and repeated (pervasive). However, one severe incident, such as a sexual assault can trigger liability.
Examples of sexual harassment include repeated comments of a sexual nature, unwanted grabbing or touching, or repeatedly pursuing a romantic relationship with someone who is not interested and has made that clear. Illegal sexual harassment also includes termination or threats of termination if you don’t engage in sexual relations with a person in a position of authority over you – this is known as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment.
If you believe you are being sexually harassed at work, you should tell the harasser to stop and report the conduct to a supervisor or Human Resources employee to document your concerns. Your employer then has an obligation to investigate your reports and take appropriate steps to end the harassment. If that doesn’t resolve your situation, consulting with an attorney can provide additional options.
Follow this series as we share three more things every woman should know about employment law.
Number Three: Basics about Retaliation
It is also illegal to terminate employees because they’ve reported illegal discrimination or harassment to their employer. Under federal and Minnesota law, this is called retaliation or reprisal. It is often difficult to decide whether or not to make a report of illegal discrimination or sexual harassment in your workplace. Many people are understandably concerned that once they make this type of report, they will be retaliated against. Even though it’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for making such a report, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. If you experience retaliatory conduct after you’ve made a report of discrimination or harassment, it is important to report that retaliation in writing as well. It is also important to make it clear that you believe you are being retaliated against because of your report of discrimination or harassment. If you end up in a lawsuit against your employer, the retaliation itself is a separate claim that can be made.
When reporting any kind of illegal conduct, the more of a paper trail you create documenting your concerns and reports of illegal conduct, the easier it is to prove a case down the road. Putting your reports in writing to your employer is a good practice, as is making your claims very clear in your written and verbal communications. When you make a complaint like this, be sure you make it clear that you are reporting sex discrimination or sexual harassment or retaliation because you previously reported sex discrimination. If you don’t make it clear that you are reporting illegal behavior, but rather simply unfair or unpleasant behavior, it is easy for your employer to say you are just reporting run-of-the-mill personality conflicts, a “bully boss” or other issues that don’t rise to the level of illegal behavior. You will be more protected under the law if you identify the illegal conduct specifically.
Follow our series as we outline two more things every woman should know about employment law.
Number Four: Basics about Leave for Medical and Other Needs
In Minnesota, employees are entitled to a variety of different types of medical and family leave. For example, if your company has 21 or more employees, you are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for the birth or adoption of a child. Parental leave laws apply to parents of both genders. If your company has 50 or more employees, you are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for a serious health condition, including mental health conditions, or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. This leave doesn’t have to be taken all at once, and can be taken on an intermittent basis if that’s what your doctor believes is best.
Even if your company has fewer than 50 employees, your employer is required to engage in an interactive process with you to provide you with reasonable medical leave for a qualifying disability. In Minnesota, you are also entitled to take leave for court dates related to being a victim of domestic violence. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, your employers have to provide you with paid leave for sick days, or absences related to being a victim of domestic violence, for yourself or a family member, up to a maximum of 80 hours per year.
It is illegal for your employer to terminate you or retaliate against you for taking or requesting qualifying leaves of absence. Because of the differences in types of leave available and eligibility requirements, it is important to be aware of what is needed to qualify for a leave. That will give you maximum success and protection in asking for the time off.
Number Five: Basics about Equal Pay
It is illegal for an employer to pay female employees less than male employees for the same work. It is also illegal in Minnesota to terminate employees for asking about or discussing their wages with other employees. If you learn that you are being paid less than a male co-worker who has the same or substantially similar job as you, you should make a report to your supervisor or Human Resources department. It is illegal for your company to terminate you or retaliate against you for raising concerns about gender-based wage disparities.
Emma Denny is an experienced, tough employment attorney, who is relentless in her pursuit of justice for clients who have been wronged by their employer. She has successfully litigated cases in state and federal court and negotiated favorable resolutions for clients facing discrimination, whistleblower, harassment, FMLA, ERISA, disability and religious accommodation, wage, retaliation, contract agreements and a host of other disputes.