Advocacy Issues: Employer abuses
Employers of counselors and therapists sometimes violate applicable labor law. Prelicensed clinicians may be offered "internships" that legally should be jobs, or may develop payment structures that result in a therapist receiving less than minimum wage. Other violations occur as well. Therapists should (1) be informed of applicable law, (2) seek first to work with their employers to correct any inadvertent mistakes, and (3) be willing to complain to state authorities when necessary.
When an employer violates applicable law, it is not always intentional. For example, in a private practice setting, a pay structure that is contingent on client fees may be fine for an employee therapist with high-paying clients, while another employee therapist with low-paying clients may wind up receiving less than minimum wage for their work.
It is generally best to begin any discussion of employment issues by presuming good faith on the part of the employer, and seeking to work with them to develop shared understanding of the employer's obligations under the law and a mutually acceptable strategy to meet those obligations.
Unfortunately, not all employers are open to such discussions. In order to stop employer abuses, three pieces must be in place: Policy, complaints, and enforcement.
There must first be laws or other policies that define a particular practice as not allowed. In the absence of such rules, the best a therapist could do in a difficult employment situation is try to convince the employer to change their ways. If that fails, the therapist has few other options but to leave. However, if the right rules are in place, and an employer continues to break them, the therapist should be able to complain to the appropriate enforcement agency. For example, if an employer is paying less than minimum wage for work in a for-profit setting, the employee may choose to complain to their state labor board. The final piece of the puzzle is enforcement: That labor board would need to act against the employer. Ideally, such an action is done publicly. That way other employers engaging in the same practice will see that they are placing themselves at risk.
What you can do
If you are concerned that your employer may be violating the law, you may wish to consult with an employment law attorney, who can help you understand your options. You also may want to discuss the issue directly with the employer, presuming good faith as described above. If you are aware of employer abuses, be willing to file formal complaints. Therapists often (and understandably) are reluctant to do so, for fear that they will lose their current job and may have difficulty finding another. While these are genuine risks, employers may be prohibited from retaliating against whistleblower employees. And other employers may decide that your courage in handling a problem appropriately makes you well-equipped to help clients handle their problems well.
Nothing here should be construed as legal advice. For advisement on your legal options, please consult with an attorney. This page last updated September 2017.