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Employment Laws

Employment laws cover many issues including pay, overtime and benefits.

Violations of employment laws may be taken before a judge. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Violations of employment laws may be taken before a judge.

Employment Laws

Employment laws, also referred to as labor laws, help define the employer-employee relationship. These federal and state laws regulate a variety of workplace issues, ranging from which factors employers are allowed to consider when deciding to hire someone to lawful grounds for termination. The U.S. Department of Labor administers federal employment laws, which individual states may then expand.

Pay and Benefits

The U.S. Department of Labors Fair Labor Standards Act contains laws regarding minimum wage, overtime regulations and employee record keeping, among other issues. Federal law sets the minimum wage that a private or public employer can pay employees. As of May 2009, the federal minimum wage is $6.55 an hour. Individual states may require a higher minimum wage; in Michigan, for instance, the state minimum wage is $7.40. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, hourly workers, also known as non-exempt workers, must earn overtime pay for any hours worked past 40 hours in one week. The minimum rate for overtime pay is one and one-half times the worker's regular wage. The law does not limit the number of hours a worker older than 16 may work in one week.

The Department of Labor also enforces laws pertaining to worker's benefits, mainly health and retirement benefits. One of the most important laws protecting worker's health benefits is the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1986. This act ensures that workers and their covered family members do not immediately lose employee-provided health insurance if they are laid off or fired, change jobs or divorce, though the employee will have to pay the full amount of the premium.

Safety and Health

Safety and health regulations vary by industry. Employers are required to follow standards that provide the safest possible working environments for employees. Uniform safety law is impossible; safety hazards that can easily be eliminated in an office may not be avoidable at a construction site. The majority of laws designed to protect worker's health and safety are enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). By law, employers are required to post either a federal or state OSHA poster informing employees of their specific safety and health rights.

While OSHA operates at a federal level, it also encourages states to develop and implement their own job health and safety programs. As of May 2009, 26 states have their own OSHA state plans, including Tennessee, Indiana and Washington. The state programs must, at a minimum, enforce compliance with OSHA's standards to maintain a safe working environment, though states may improve upon federal standards or add standards that are not included in federal law. States can also enact laws regarding workplace-related drug and alcohol use, and states such as Colorado limit an employee's eligibility for workman's compensation if an injury occurs due to intoxication.

Federal law protects the health of worker's family members under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This act allows eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period without risking termination. Leave can be taken to deal with a personal health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition or to care for a new child.

Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from discrimination. According to the act, employers may not refuse to hire an individual or terminate a worker based on the worker's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Employers also cannot legally prevent internal employment opportunities, such as promotions or pay increases, based on a worker's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Civil Rights Act makes exceptions for positions where religion, sex or national origin is considered integral to the businesss or organization's operation. The law also protects religious schools that hire teachers of the school's particular religion. Workers who file discrimination grievances against their employer are protected by the law.

States may add provisions to the Civil Rights Act to broaden the scope of what is considered unlawful discrimination. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, many states and municipalities have added laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on a worker's marital or parental status, sexual orientation or political affiliation.

Youth Employment

Special federal employment laws cover workers younger than 18 years old. In general, children younger than 14 years old cannot be employed, although the law makes exceptions for certain occupations, such as acting and delivering newspapers. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds are limited to working outside of school hours in non-hazardous and non-manufacturing jobs under specified conditions and for limited time periods. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can legally work any number of hours in non-hazardous positions. The U.S. Secretary of Labor decides what positions are considered hazardous. States can choose to expand upon federal youth employment laws, and many states, such as Kentucky, require young workers to obtain work permits and limit the number of hours teens younger than 18 years old may work.

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