An employment attorney is an attorney that an aggrieved worker hires to bring a legal action against his or her current or former employer. The purpose of the claim is typically to seek unpaid wages, back pay, statutory or punitive damages, and sometimes even reinstatement.
Five common situations where an employment attorney can be helpful are where:
- you are being harassed at work,
- your employer is not paying you,
- you are being discriminated against,
- you got fired for an improper reason, and/or
- you got hurt at work.
1. You suffered workplace harassment
Both state and federal employment laws forbid workplace harassment. Legally, being forced to put up with harassing behavior alters the conditions of employment. Such harassment can come in 2 forms:
Harassment can be either sexual harassment or non-sexual harassment. However, quid pro quo harassment is almost always sexual in nature.
An employment attorney can help in either case. With a lawyer’s legal advice, you can take the steps necessary to stop the harassment. If that does not work, you can file a lawsuit to hold your employer liable for letting it persist.
Quid pro quo harassment
The phrase “quid pro quo” means “this for that” in Latin. Quid pro quo harassment is when a supervisor ties your subjection to harassing behavior – nearly always sexual – to a workplace benefit. The request can be made either explicitly or implicitly.
For example: Jeff tells Susan that he can promote her, but only if she performs a sex act on him.
The workplace benefit can be any of the following:
- getting a job offer,
- a promotion,
- higher pay,
- better shift assignments,
- a transfer to a better position, or
- dropped disciplinary action.
If you have been subjected to quid pro quo harassment, a lawyer can help you. They can guide you through the sensitive process of:
- reporting the harassing behavior to the appropriate personnel within your workplace, such as to a member of the Human Resources Department (HR),
- filing a complaint with your state’s anti-discrimination agency, such as the California Civil Rights Department (CRD), or
- filing a lawsuit against your employer for harassment.
An attorney can also investigate the case to see if there are other victims, as well.
Hostile work environment
A hostile work environment occurs when inappropriate behavior targets a protected trait and is either severe or pervasive enough to create such a workplace that a reasonable person would find it to be:
- hostile, or
Creating a hostile work environment is essentially workplace bullying.
Importantly, offensive behaviors that can create a hostile work environment can target your:
- gender or gender expression,
- sexual orientation,
- national origin,
- disability, or
A lawyer can help you handle a hostile working environment by:
- directing you how to document the situation,
- determining who you should report the situation to within the workplace,
- guiding you through the internal complaint process,
- helping you file a discrimination claim with your state’s anti-discrimination agency, and
- filing a lawsuit on your behalf if the problem persists or your employer’s response is inadequate.
2. Your employer is violating employment law by not paying you
When you perform work for your employer, you are entitled to get paid for it. State and federal laws have numerous provisions that describe what this pay has to be. If your employer is not complying with these laws, a lawyer can help you get your unpaid wages.
There are 3 common ways for your employer to deprive you of your rightful wage. They can:
- misclassify you as an independent contractor,
- misclassify you as an exempt employee, or
- not pay you the wages that you are legally entitled to receive.
There are also less common ways for employers to deprive you of your rightful wages, like:
- not paying for unused vacation time after you leave,
- keeping your tips, and
- making you work off the clock.
In some cases, this can rise to the level of wage theft.
Regardless of how you were deprived of your wages, an attorney can help you file a wage and hour lawsuit. They can also investigate your case to discover if there are others like you who are also losing wages. If there are, the lawsuit can become a class action.
Independent contractor misclassification
Generally, there are 2 types of workers:
- employees, and
- independent contractors.
Independent contractors have more freedom over the work that they perform. Different states use different tests, like the ABC Test, to determine when a worker is an independent contractor and when they are an employee. Generally speaking, however, independent contractors:
- perform promised services for a promised payment upon completion, and
- retain control over how the service is performed.
However, they are not entitled to the legal protections afforded to employees. These include:
- the minimum wage,
- overtime pay,
- meal and rest breaks, and
- employee benefits, like unemployment insurance or healthcare.
Lots of employers misclassify workers to get the best of both types: They treat workers like employees but label and pay them like independent contractors.
An employment attorney can file a misclassification lawsuit and demand the wages you deserve. Many of these cases become class actions. If your employer is misclassifying you as an independent contractor, others are likely being misclassified as well.
Exempt employee misclassification
There are 2 different types of employees:
- exempt, and
Exempt employees are those that are exempted from legal protections afforded by state and federal wage and hour laws. Non-exempt employees are protected by these laws.
These wage and hour laws guarantee things like:
- overtime pay,
- minimum wage, and
- meal and rest breaks.
In order to be exempt, certain requirements must be met. You must fall within the definition of a specific class of worker who is exempted from these laws. The most common types of employees to be exempt ones are:
- administrative employees,
- computer professionals,
- executive employees, and
Generally, to be one of these types of exempt employees, you must:
- have certain kinds of job duties, and
- make a salary above a certain amount.
Many employers, however, misclassify employees as exempt. They often do this to impose longer hours on employees without having to pay them overtime.
An employment attorney can help you file a misclassification lawsuit and recover your unpaid wages. They can also ensure that you are properly classified in the future. Lots of these lawsuits become class actions when it is company policy to misclassify employees as exempt.
Not paying statutory wages
Employers may simply not pay you the wages that you deserve, without misclassifying you first. This is especially common for non-exempt workers who are paid hourly. Your employer can deprive you of your wages by:
- making you work off-the-clock,
- not paying overtime,
- paying you less than the applicable minimum wage,
- not paying you for rest breaks, or
- making you work during your meal breaks.
You have legal rights to these forms of compensation under state and federal law, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
If you suspect that your employer is depriving you of wages that you have earned, an employment law attorney can help. They can determine whether you are being paid properly. If you are not, they can demand your unpaid wages for you by:
- demanding that the employer make things right,
- filing a complaint with the applicable state agency, or
- filing a wage and hour lawsuit against your employer.
These employment cases also frequently become class actions. If your employer is depriving you of these wages, your coworkers are likely affected as well.
3. You are being discriminated against
An employment lawyer can also help you if you are being discriminated against in the workplace.
It is unlawful, under both state and federal law, to treat workers worse because they belong to a protected class. This often takes the form of an adverse employment action, like:
- reduction in pay,
- denial of workplace benefits,
- refusal to promote,
- pressuring you to quit, and
- workplace harassment.
Protected classes are largely the same as those for anti-harassment law, including:
- national origin,
- marital status,
- sexual orientation,
- age, and
These protected classes are covered by a variety of federal laws that cover employment matters, including the:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
- Equal Pay Act,
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and
- Americans with Disabilities Act.
States may also have additional labor and employment laws that offer more robust civil rights in the workplace.
If you have faced employment discrimination – including if you were not hired for a discriminatory reason – a lawyer can help. Generally, legal counsel from an employment law firm will guide you through the following process:
- gathering evidence of discrimination,
- reporting it internally according to your employer’s policies,
- if that does not resolve the issue, filing a claim with your state anti-discrimination agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
- go through the administrative agency’s investigation and arbitration process, and
- receiving a right to sue notice and filing your discrimination claim in state or federal court.
4. You have been wrongfully terminated
If you were fired or let go for an unlawful reason, getting legal services from an employment lawyer can help you build a case for wrongful termination. Even if you are an at-will employee, you can still be unlawfully terminated.
A few of the ways that you can be unlawfully terminated are for:
- making a wage and hour complaint,
- whistleblower activities,
- reporting or participating in a claim for discrimination,
- breach of contract,
- violation of an implied employment contract,
- filing a workers’ compensation claim, or
- taking employee leave, such as under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
A lawyer with experience in employment law issues can help you file a lawsuit against your former employer. This lawsuit has to be filed before the applicable statute of limitations. The amount of time that you have to file your claim depends on why the termination was unlawful.
Wrongful termination claims can recover your lost wages and back pay, as well as compensation for your emotional damages. Attorneys’ fees are often available, too. In rare cases you can recover punitive damages.
5. You suffered a workplace injury
If you got hurt at work, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation. An employment lawyer or workers’ comp attorney can make sure you get what you deserve.
There are many ways for a workers’ comp claim to get denied, even if it is a legitimate one. Just a few of them include:
- not notifying your employer on time,
- not seeking medical care soon after your injury, and
- filing a claim for workers’ comp after the statute of limitations has expired.
An experienced workers’ compensation lawyer can ensure that your claim does not get denied for one of these reasons. Additionally, an attorney can help you make an informed decision about how much to settle a workers’ comp claim for.
When should I hire an employment lawyer?
Generally, you should hire an employment lawyer from a reputable law firm as soon as you become aware of a potential issue. Particularly in employment law, getting an attorney’s legal advice early on can help you build a better case for yourself. Depending on the circumstances, this can include:
- helping you understand your employee rights and legal options,
- gathering evidence that you would not have considered to be important,
- following internal reporting policies for harassment or discrimination to put your employer on legal notice of the problem, and
- not making missteps that can harm your case down the road.
 42 USC 20003-2(a) (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) and Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 106 S.Ct. 2399 (1986).
 See California Labor Code 3353 LAB.
 See, e.g., California Labor Code 515 LAB and 8 California Code of Regulations (CCR) 11040.