Working for the U.S. government offers a number of benefits that make federal employment a great option. However, federal employees are subject to different rules than private citizens in some cases. As a federal employee, it is important to understand what your rights are and how you can use them to your advantage to protect your job and your wellbeing.
What Are My Rights as a Federal Employee?
Subject to some limited exceptions, federal employees have the same rights in the workplace as any other employee. Broadly speaking, you are entitled to a safe workplace where you can report unsafe conditions or illegal conduct without retaliation.
Your individual rights range from protection against discrimination to certain advanced procedures in the case of downsizing of your office. If your employer disciplines or fires you, you have the right to appeal. And depending on where you work and whether you are a bargaining unit employee, you may be able to take advantage of union representation.
Federal Employee Civil Rights
There are four main federal civil rights laws that cover federal employees:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967;
- The Equal Pay Act of 1963; and
- Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Together, these laws protect federal employees from discrimination and harassment based on a number of protected traits. As a federal employee, you have a right to a safe workplace free of discrimination or harassment based on your race, color, religion, sex, disability, or age.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects against both intentionally and unintentionally discriminatory practices. If you have been subject to any office policy or conduct causing even indirect discrimination, you may have a claim under the Civil Rights Act.
The Equal Pay Act prohibits the government from engaging in discriminatory payment practices based on your sex. This Act applies to jobs that are “substantially equal,” where the employees perform work of similar skill and responsibility in the same working conditions. Even if two positions are not strictly identical, the Equal Pay Act will protect against pay discrimination between them. In addition, the Act covers all forms of pay, not just salary or hourly wages.
Although people are hesitant to share details about their salary or wages, you may have a claim if you suspect that you are being paid less than your coworkers, including fewer bonuses, allowances, or accommodations, based on your sex.
Protection Against Age and Disability Discrimination
The Age Discrimination In Employment Act and Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act protect you against discrimination based on your age or status as a person with a physical or mental impairment. The Rehabilitation Act in particular allows federal employees to receive certain rights found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Section 501 requires that federal employees not only refrain from discriminating against such persons but that they take proactive steps to recruit them.
Workplace Safety Rights for Federal Employees
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) oversees workplace safety. As a federal employee, you are entitled to a safe workplace free of known health and safety hazards. You also have the right to report workplace hazards without fear of firing, demotion, or discipline for doing so.
Federal Employee Protection Against Prohibited Personnel Practices
If you are a regular Title 5 federal employee, you may be able to appeal a disciplinary action or certain personnel decisions to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Personnel decisions are those made within an organization that affect employees’ work lives, such as demotions, transfers, suspensions, or discharge. The MSPB is responsible for hearing employee appeals of these actions and others to ensure that federal employees receive due process.
If you are a non-probationary employee (i.e. you have been hired for a permanent position and have successfully completed any probationary period), you can file an appeal with the MSPB if you are suspended for more than 14 days, discharged from your position, or demoted. Various other personnel decisions, OPM retirement issues or retaliatory disciplinary actions, are also appealable.
The Office of Special Counsel is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the 14 personnel practices prohibited by 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b), most notably whistleblower retaliation. In addition to discrimination, federal law prohibits:
- Coercing political activity,
- Hiring relatives (nepotism),
- Retaliating against employees for filing appeals,
- Violating veteran’s preference requirements, or
- Deceiving or obstructing a person from seeking employment.
If you have experienced any of these adverse actions, a federal employee attorney can help.
Federal employees may be in a position to expose fraud or other wrongdoing that occurs within the government. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act And Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), federal employees have protection against retaliation for their disclosure of certain misconduct, including:
- Illegal actions,
- Gross mismanagement,
- Gross waste of funds,
- Abuse of authority, and
- Substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.
Whistleblowers provide an important public service, and the breadth of protection for federal employee whistleblowers demonstrates that importance.
In addition to the whistleblower act, many federal agencies are responsible for administering their own whistleblower protection laws. OSHA, for example, administers workplace-safety-related whistleblower protections under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Keep in mind, however, that these agencies may not offer the same confidentiality as broader federal whistleblower laws.
What Happens If You Get Fired from a Federal Job?
The full consequences of termination from a federal job depend on what kind of federal employee you were and the pay grade you had achieved at the time of discharge.
If you believe you were fired from your federal job in circumstances that are illegal or that violate any of the prohibited personnel practices, you should contact a federal employee attorney as soon as possible. A federal employment attorney can review your termination and help you determine whether your termination was lawful.
If it was not, your attorney can help you file an appeal. Because the MSPB operates on strict deadlines, hiring an attorney also ensures that all appropriate paperwork is filed on time.
Appealing Termination from a Federal Job
The appeals process for termination from a federal job is similar to the process in a civil lawsuit. After you file the appeal, there is a discovery period during which you will be able to obtain additional information to support your case through depositions and discovery requests. At the same time, an experienced attorney can also help you negotiate a settlement in your case, potentially negating the need for a hearing at all.
After discovery, an administrative law judge will hear your case at an MSPB hearing (if you elect the MSPB route). At the hearing, you may introduce testimony that supports your case and perform cross-examination of the other party’s witnesses. After the hearing, the administrative law judge will issue an initial decision.
If the initial decision is favorable to you, the judge may provide remedies such as reinstatement, back pay and attorneys’ fees. If you lose at the hearing, you may have the option to file a lawsuit in federal court, especially if your claim involves workplace discrimination. In either case, hiring a federal employee attorney is critical. The MSPB appeals process is complex, and having experienced counsel is the best way to maximize your chances of success.
Even if you lose your appeal and a subsequent court case, you will still be able to apply for any federal vacancies that are available. That is to say, being fired from a federal job does not automatically bar you from seeking employment with the government again.
Depending on whether your termination was voluntary or involuntary or during a probationary period, you may still encounter some difficulty because federal hirers may see your termination as a blemish on your work history record. In addition, there may be other benefits available to you as a prior federal employee which an attorney can help you apply for.
Can Federal Employees Sue For Wrongful Termination?
Yes, federal employees can sue for wrongful termination—but the process is complicated. A wrongful termination is any discharge of an employee for reasons prohibited by law. Firing an employee based on discimination or in retaliation when an employee blows the whistle are examples of wrongful termination.
Wrongful termination can also occur when an employee faces a constructive removal or involuntary resignation. These are cases where the Agency’s actions are tantamount to removal even if it does not explicitly issue one.
Wrongful termination claims usually go to the MSPB, however they can be processed through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well. You must file a complaint with either the MSPB or your Agency’s EEO office stating your claim and providing evidence of your employer’s unlawful behavior. You can only choose one path for appeal though, so it is important to discuss each option with an attorney.
Just like a private employee, you are protected by the laws administered by the EEOC, including the Civil Rights Act. As with the MSPB appeals discussed above, hiring a lawyer to help you handle the complex EEO complaint process and any subsequent trial, which is crucial to your success.
Only a federal employee attorney familiar with discrimination lawsuits, whistleblower retaliation, and disciplinary action procedures can give you the advice you need to succeed on your claim. Attempting any of these processes without a lawyer (called “pro se” representation) puts you at a severe disadvantage against the federal agency who will have a team of lawyers working on their side.
Should I Get a Lawyer for Federal Workers’ Compensation?
Whenever you ask yourself if you should hire a lawyer, the answer is usually yes. Federal employee lawyers have training and experience in precisely the kinds of employment-related issues you may encounter as a federal employee.
Workers’ compensation for federal employees is administered by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP). If the OWCP accepts your claim, you may be eligible to receive compensation for treatment of the injury resulting in your claim, as well as lost wage benefits for the time you are unable to work.
In either case, the benefits available to you are significant and warrant hiring a federal workers’ compensation lawyer. First, a lawyer can help you determine your eligibility for benefits and can provide advice on possible alternatives if necessary. Second, a federal employee attorney can assist you in the preparation and filing of your federal workers’ compensation claim. Because your claim will be filed properly the first time, it is more likely to be accepted. As a result, you will be able to start receiving benefits as soon as possible
Contact a Federal Employee Attorney
The Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing, PLLC, helps federal employees with a broad range of federal employment issues. We have years of experience helping clients get their jobs back and resolving workplace discrimination and harassment.