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Federal labor laws protect employees from unfair or unsafe workplaces. The US Department of Labor (DOL) enforces these rules, and companies can face strong penalties if they don’t follow regulations.
For example, breaking wage laws can cost a company over $10,000 in fines. Executives of companies that knowingly violate the labor code can face criminal charges or go to jail.
For these reasons, employers must follow all state and federal labor laws. Our guide will teach you what you need to know to keep your workplace in line with US regulations.
Federal labor laws come from legislative acts, administrative rules, and court opinions.
According to HG, labor laws started in the Industrial Revolution, during which many employers were known for oppressive practices. The earliest laws established a minimum age for workers, created a minimum wage, and established workplace injury compensation.
Many laws resulted from labor rights advocacy, led by labor unions in the 18th century.
Later laws would create special rules for exempt versus non-exempt workers and employees versus independent contractors.
Advocates for the fair treatment of all people also have influenced labor laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, came in response to equal rights activism and resulted in several labor laws that prevent prejudice based on gender, religion, ethnicity, age, and disability.
During the 1960s, workplace illnesses and diseases began to increase rapidly. In that decade, more than 400,000 Americans died because of on-the-job injuries.
Changes were desperately needed. New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams introduced a bill to protect workers. At the same time, Representative William A. Steiger advocated on behalf of the bill in the House.
The new law, known as the Williams-Steiger Act, created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Department of Labor.
Over time, federal lawmakers amend acts, and federal agencies issue new interpretations of older rulings.
Though laws may change, employers must stay in the know about exemptions and updates.
Several labor laws require that companies provide equal opportunities to all candidates in the hiring process.
Aside from being the law, having diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, and religion also positively affects businesses.
A McKinsey study makes this clear. They found that diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to perform better financially than competitors.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 strengthened Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Civil Rights Act stated that employment discrimination based on race, age, color, national origin, religion, or gender is against the law. The Equal Opportunity Act gave the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) the job of enforcing this act.
Most anti-discrimination provisions apply to companies with at least 15 employees. Age discrimination laws apply to companies with more than 20 employees.
The Equal Opportunity Act applies to all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, benefits, wages, and more. It also prohibits sexual harassment.
The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and was amended in 2008.
The act, enforced by the Department of Justice, prohibits discrimination based on physical and mental disability. The EEOC enforces the employment aspects of the law.
The act applies to all private, state, and local government employers with 15 or more team members.
To be protected under ADA, a person must have a significant disability and otherwise be able to perform the essential job tasks with or without reasonable accommodation.
Examples of reasonable accommodations include:
Modifying equipment and devices
Providing special speakers or listening tools
Making the workplace wheelchair accessible
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits discrimination against workers older than 40. The law applies to all organizations with 20 employees or more.
Work rules or policies that don’t specify an age can be illegal if they aren’t based on reasonable factors and specifically harm older team members.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets all employees’ minimum wage and overtime standards. It also lays out norms for minors and children in the workplace.
Youth under age 20 may receive a lower minimum wage for the first 90 days of their employment unless state and local laws prohibit it. The act limits the hours that 14 and 15-year-olds can work. The goal is to emphasize education — not their career — while young.
The FLSA standardizes the federal minimum wage to be $7.25 per hour for most industries. Tipped employees, those receiving more than $30 a month in tips, must receive at least $2.13 an hour under this law. Many states and localities have a higher minimum wage.
The Fair Labor Standards Act also requires that most employees receive overtime pay at 1.5 times their regular pay rate for work over 40 hours in seven days. Employees in some jobs and industries are exempt from these overtime pay laws.
The act additionally requires that employers provide reasonable break times and adequate space for nursing people to breastfeed their infants under age 1.
The Department of Labor is the primary group responsible for enforcing FLSA.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), passed in 1994, protects members of the military, military reserve, and veterans from discrimination based on their service.
Further, it helps them regain their civilian jobs after military duty.
The law specifies how long employers have after a veteran completes their military service to re-employ the veteran if requested.
The USERRA also states that the employer must give the veteran a job equal to what they would have if they had remained in the position continuously.
Federal laws also protect workers’ safety in various ways. For example, they include safety standards like requiring ergonomic furniture or hardhats.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 ensures employees have a workplace free of known hazards.
The Act also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce safe working conditions further.
OSHA defines specific safety standards for construction, agriculture, and general industries and applies to most businesses with at least one employee.
Several federal laws ensure that workers injured on the job receive compensation.
The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) provides workers’ compensation coverage for federal employees who suffer work-related injuries and health conditions.
The US Department of Labor also oversees worker’s compensation programs covering dockers, harbor workers, and miners. State-managed workers’ compensation boards cover individuals injured while working for private employers.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to maintain a workplace free of harassment based on gender, sex, or orientation.
It also protects employees from retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. Title VII allows workers who are sexually harassed to sue employers, but not the individual harasser.
This act applies to private and public sector employers with 15 or more staff members. It also covers employment agencies and labor organizations.
Federal laws also cover employee wages and pensions.
The laws differentiate between salaried team members, who are often exempt employees, and hourly workers, who are usually non-exempt employees.
Exempt employees are excused from rules on minimum wages and overtime pay, while non-exempt are not.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) sets minimum standards for private industry health and retirement plans.
ERISA protects employees from fund managers who misuse funds and establishes eligibility, vesting, benefit accrual, and other rules.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act regulations apply to defined benefit pension plans. These give a specific benefit based on years of service, salary, and defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s.
The act covers employee stock options, profit sharing, health maintenance organizations, disability plans, and flexible spending plans. ERISA does not cover church-based plans and government plans.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires employers to pay men and women the same rate for work that requires the same skill, effort, and responsibility.
The Equal Pay Act does allow for different pay rates based on seniority, merit, or factors other than gender.
The Fair Labor Standards Act rules some aspects of employee scheduling, although states and areas often impose more significant requirements on employers.
Federal laws also will specify rules regarding split shifts and overtime. A split shift is a full shift with an extended middle break. The number of hours employees work can vary weekly but must include adequate rest between time on the clock.
Federal laws also lay out requirements for companies regarding their employees’ medical needs.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) specifies that businesses with more than 50 full-time employees must provide health insurance or make tax payments called Employer Shared Responsibility Payments.
The law specifies that companies must offer health options to employees who have worked for them for at least 90 days.
The Affordable Care Act also extends incentives for employers to implement wellness programs in the workplace.
The ACA also provides a Small Business Health Options program for smaller organizations that want health insurance for employees.
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) provides temporary continuing health care coverage for employees and their family members if they lose their jobs.
Depending on the circumstances, COBRA coverage can last for 18 or 36 months.
It also applies in cases of divorce or death. Employees or beneficiaries pay the premiums for the insurance themselves, but at group rates.
COBRA is available for employees and family members of businesses with 20 employees or more.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job and health insurance protection for employees who take time off.
FMLA mandates twelve workweeks of unpaid leave for employees to care for newborns, newly adopted children, or family members with certain health conditions.
The act can help an employee whose qualifying family member is a military service member on “covered active duty.”
To be eligible for FMLA leave, the employee must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months, have at least 1,250 hours of service within the 12 months before they leave, and work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.
These absence management rules apply to private-sector companies employees with 20 or more employees and public agencies or schools (regardless of the number of employees).
Federal and state labor laws can be tricky. Employers must deeply understand which laws they must follow and which offer exemptions. Learn more about Texas labor law here.
Human resources should know best practices for hiring new employees, retraining staff, and firing team members. They must keep careful records to protect themselves against discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuits.
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