Guide to Labor Law
What is Employment Law?
Employment law governs the rights and duties between employers and workers. Also referred to as labor law, these rules are primarily designed to keep workers safe and make sure they are treated fairly, although laws are in place to protect employers’ interests as well. Employment laws are based on federal and state constitutions, legislation, administrative rules, and court opinions. A particular employment relationship may also be governed by contract.
American labor laws trace back to public outcry against the oppressive practices of the industrial revolution. In the early 20th century, the first laws were passed to compensate injured workers, establish a minimum wage, create a standard work week, and outlaw child labor. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Congress acted to prohibit discrimination and unsafe work conditions. Current issues involve employee healthcare and equal pay for men and women.
Many of the employment disputes that result in litigation deal with “wage and hour” violations. Federal law establishes baseline rules with respect to these issues, and then states are free to pass laws providing additional protections. For example, federal law requires a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Several states have approved a higher minimum wage, and employers in those states must comply.
Wage and hour laws also regulate overtime pay. The federal government does not place limits on the number of hours adults may work per week, but after 40 hours time and a half must be paid. Rules exist to control the hours and working conditions for workers under age 18, with special provisions for those working in the agricultural sector. In addition, these laws require employers to post notices and keep basic payroll records.
Discrimination in the workplace is another basis for many employment law cases. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation makes it illegal to treat workers differently based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, age, or disability. Hiring an attorney to pursue a discrimination claim is recommended, as detailed procedures must be followed, such as obtaining a Right-To-Sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The “At Will” Presumption
In nearly every state, the law presumes that employment relationships are at will. That is to say, employers and employees are free to terminate the relationship at any time and for any reason. This presumption can be overcome by showing the parties entered into an employment contract or made other promises regarding when and how the relationship would end. Courts will also ignore the at will presumption when one of several exceptions applies.
The most common exceptions involve matters of public policy. For example, employers cannot fire workers for discriminatory reasons. Likewise, they cannot fire an employee in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim, or for disclosing a violation of law to the authorities (whistle blowing). A minority of states also prohibit employers from terminating employees in bad faith, such as firing a worker to avoid paying a bonus or other benefit.
As mentioned, employers and workers may enter into employment contracts. Such contracts can describe the length of employment, compensation, disciplinary procedures, reasons for termination, and so forth. As long as the contract is otherwise legal, it will be enforced in lieu of the at will doctrine. Moreover, contract terms can be created by implication, based on oral assurances and other conduct, even in the absence of a written document.
In cases involving an employment contract, courts are often called upon to interpret the meaning of specific clauses. Promises not to compete are one example. These clauses prevent former employees from engaging in the same trade in the same market or geographical area. Restrictions against disclosing trade secrets are another example. Employment attorneys routinely litigate these types of issues.
A number of other workplace matters can arise in employment law cases. This has led attorneys who restrict their practices to labor law to further specialize in areas such as unemployment insurance claims, worker’s compensation, sexual harassment, and compliance issues involving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). For those involved in an employment dispute, finding an attorney with the right training can make all the difference.
Know Your Employment Rights!
- Are Same-Sex Couples Entitled to Share Employment Benefits?
Traditionally, one benefit of marriage was being able to share in a spouse's employment benefits, like health, vision, and dental insurance. Unfortunately, many same-sex couples have struggled for years to receive the same level of benefits and even the right to be married. With more and more jurisdictions recognizing same-sex marriages, are employers now required to provide same-sex couples with the same level of benefits as heterosexual couples?
- Are Sexual Harassment Investigations Confidential?
An all too common occurrence in the modern workplace is the sexual harassment. This can take many forms, like unwelcome sexual or romantic advances, sexual blackmail, offensive touching, discussions of intimate activities that make others uncomfortable, etc. While there are a number of laws to protect those who complain of such activities, what of those who are accused, particularly if the sexual harassment claim is determined to be unfounded or used as a means of embarrassment or retaliation?
- Can You Fire Someone For Their Social Media Complaints About Work?
Social media is everywhere today; from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, it would be almost impossible for an employer not to have someone working for them that has some form of social media presence. While you might be able to keep an employee from updating their Facebook status from the office, can you do anything about what they say or do about you or your company on their social media in their own time? Indeed, can you fire someone for their social media complaints about work?
- Habitually Absent, Tardy, or Sick? How to Deal with Employees Who Are Not Coming to Work
Do you have a trouble employee that can never seem to make it to work when they are supposed to? Either they are always late or they are not there at all? How should you go about disciplining this employee, particularly if you have let it slide in the past? Is there any risk to firing someone for claiming too much sick time (even if they are entitled to those days under the terms of their employment)?
- How to Deal with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment is usually defined by Courts and employers using the definition of sexual harassment contained in the guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This language has also formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment.
- My Employer Didn't Pay Me, Now What?
Employment law can be confusing and it can be difficult to learn what your rights are and what you are entitled to. When an employer does not pay for something (whether regular wages, overtime, tip splitting, reimbursements, or something else) it can be very frightening and confusing. Is the employer right? Should I even bother fighting?
- What Are America's Child Labor Laws?
It is often a coming of age event: getting that first job, usually to pay for something irresponsible like a sports car or a video game. But how old does one have to be to start working? How many hours can they work every day and week? Who gets to control the money (i.e., the child or the parents)?
- What Are America's Minimum Wage Laws?
The United States has statutory minimum wage laws intended to ensure that even the least skilled of workers are able to earn enough money on which to live. As of July 2009, the federal minimum wage was set to $7.25 per hour, which equates to weekly earnings of just $290 per week (before taxes) for a full time job. However, many feel this number has not kept up with inflation and that this number is no longer a livable figure.
- What Do I Need to Know About A Non-Compete Agreement?
Many have been asked to sign non-compete agreements or thought they might be a good idea to protect their business interests when hiring someone. But, what do they do? How are they enforced? What legal requirements do they have to follow?
Articles About Employment Law
- Chef Nearly Loses Hand in Machine AccidentCompared to jobs in construction and law enforcement, most people do not regard working in a kitchen as extremely dangerous. However, whenever a job requires use of heavy or small equipment, there is the risk of a serious machine accident.
- Reasonable AccommodationsPassed in 1990, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids employment discrimination against workers with disabilities. Employees with disabilities have a right to request help or changes to the environment of their workplace or a position that allows them to successfully perform his or her job.
- What You Need to Know Before Requesting Medical LeaveWhen you or a member of your family are suffering due to a medical condition, you shouldn’t have to worry that asking for time off from work might have a negative impact on your job.
- Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation ActThe Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act Law was passed in 1927 to protect longshoremen who work on U.S. waters.
- Professional Liability DefenseThe American Bar Association’s Professional Liability Committee has found a correlation between financial downturns and professional liability lawsuits. In general, when the economy slows, professional liability lawsuits spike.
- Retirement Benefits and DivorceThe United States Supreme Court decided a case involving a military pension which highlights the importance of understanding the nature of retirement benefits in divorce cases.
- Can You Be Fired Over a Personality Conflict? What You Need to Know about At-Will EmploymentHow at-will employment can be used to disguise discrimination.
- New York City Curtails Retail Businesses' and Fast Food Chains' Discretion in Scheduling Workers' ShiftsNew laws in New York City substantially limit retail employers' and fast food establishments' discretion in scheduling work shifts for their employees.
- When Is an Employee’s Commute Covered by Workers’ Compensation?In most cases, if someone is injured in a car accident on their way to work, their injuries are not covered under their employer’s Workers’ Compensation plan.
- Invisible Work InjuriesWhen a person is wearing a cast or using crutches to get around, it is clear to others that the person has been injured. However, sometimes the most painful injuries are those that cannot be detected just by looking at the person.
- All Employment and Labor Law Articles
Department of Labor by State
Employment Law - US
- ABA - Section of Labor and Employment Law
This section of the American Bar Association has a membership of more than 25,000 legal professionals. Anyone looking to stay current on employment law will find their web page to be useful.
- Agricultural Labor Affairs Coordinator (ALAC) - Agricultural Labor Laws
Compliance with agricultural labor laws requires employers to be familiar with both employment and immigration regulations. The Department of Agriculture publishes this summary.
- Child Labor Protections
The US Department of Labor provides this employment law guide dealing with protections for young workers in non-agricultural industries.
- ELaws - US Department of Labor
Visit this page to learn about federal employment laws using interactive online tools. Subjects covered include disability, anti-discrimination, drug testing, medical leave, and many others.
- Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
ERISA is the federal law governing private retirement and benefit plans, and the tax consequences involved.
- Employment Law Information Network
This informational site and attorney directory provides hundreds of articles on federal and state labor law.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Every employee considering filing a discrimination claim must become familiar the EEOC. This official website discusses the agency, its purpose, and the claim application process.
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
The FLSA governs “wage and hour” issues under federal law. Compliance standards are discussed on this Department of Labor web page.
- Family and Medical Leave Act
The Wage and Hour division of the Labor Department provides this online summary of the FMLA, the federal legislation dealing with maternity leave and related issues.
- Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959
Federal law requires labor groups and employers to comply with reporting, administrative, and electoral regulations. The legislation imposing such requirements is outlined on this web page.
- Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA)
Those who hire migrant farm workers should be familiar with the MSPA. Visit this government website for information about the Act.
- National Employment Law Institute (NELI)
NELI is a non-profit organization offering employment law training in person, by telephone, and over the web. The trainings are open to attorneys and members of the public.
- Unemployment Compensation Law - Overview
Cornell University Law School maintains this web page describing the unemployment insurance claim procedure. Funding and administration of the unemployment system are also explained.
- Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994
Current and retired members of the armed forces are provided special anti-discrimination protections in the workplace. The federal law dealing with these protections is summarized on this government web page.
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is the division of the Labor Department charged with measuring conditions in the marketplace. Visit this official site for current data on the U.S. economy.
- US Department of Labor
This link points directly to the Labor Department’s Employment Law Guide. All major federal employment legislation is discussed, making this a great starting point for further research.
- US Department of Labor - Civil Rights Center
Discrimination is a primary focus of federal employment law legislation. Visit the Labor Department’s Civil Rights Center web page to learn about the government’s efforts to promote equal treatment for workers.
- US Department of Labor - Wage and Hour Division (WHD)
It has been 75 years since the Fair Labor Standard Act was enacted. The WHD website describes the current labor protection laws and what the federal government is doing to enforce them.
- Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act
The recent economic recession produced a large number of layoffs in the United States. This Department of Labor web page describes federal legislation dealing with such occurrences and the effect on workers.