US Federal Employment and Labor Laws

What the Law Says About Wages, Work Safety, Discrimination, and More

Man and woman discussing welding assembly process

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The United States Department of Labor oversees and enforces more than 180 federal laws governing workplace activities for about 10 million workplaces and 150 million workers.

The United States has hundreds of federal employment and labor laws that affect employers and employees. These laws cover everything from defining what employment is to laws regulating who can work and what situations you should be paid for.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal employment laws can protect you from discrimination at work if you are a member of a protected class.
  • Federal employment law guarantees most employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected medical leave.
  • Federal employment law determines the minimum wage and what makes an employee eligible for overtime pay.

Federal Employment Laws

Federal employment laws regulate hiring, wages, hours and salary, discrimination, harassment, employee benefits, paid time off, job applicant and employee testing, privacy, and other important workplace and employee rights issues.

Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) determines the federal minimum wage and overtime pay of one-and-one-half-times the regular rate of pay. It also regulates child labor, limiting the number of hours that minors can work.

Some U.S. states have a higher minimum wage and different overtime and child labor legislation. In those locations, state law would apply.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (FLSA) oversees employers' pension plans and the required fiduciary, disclosure, and reporting requirements. ERISA doesn’t apply to all private employers and doesn’t require companies to offer plans to workers, but it does set standards for plans, should employers choose to offer them.

The Family Medical and Family Leave Act

The Family Medical and Family Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child, for the serious illness of the employee or a spouse, child, or parent, or for emergencies related to a family member’s active military service, including childcare requirements. If the active service member becomes seriously ill or is injured in the course of their duties, coverage may be extended for up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) regulates health and safety conditions in private-sector industries to ensure that work environments do not pose any serious hazards. Covered employers are required to display a poster in the workplace, outlining workers’ rights to request an OSHA inspection, how to receive training on hazardous work environments, and how to report issues.

Civil Rights Acts

There are several laws on the books that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act law makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against job applicants based on disability.

Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act

COBRA gives workers the right to continue their health insurance coverage after separating from their job.

More Employment Laws and Guidelines

  • The Affordable Care Act – Nursing Mothers: Under the provisions of the ACA, employers must provide nursing mothers with a private room to nurse/express milk, as well as time to do so.
  • Background Check Law: Regulates employment background checks and the manner in which they can be used during the recruitment process.
  • Breaks from Work Laws: These laws regulate meal and rest breaks.
  • Child Labor Laws: These legal protections restrict and regulate working hours for minors, as well as the types of employment children in which may work.
  • Compensatory Time: These are laws regulating paid time off in lieu of overtime pay for extra hours worked.
  • Discrimination: This law protects workers who are discriminated against because of age, disability, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race or skin color, religion, or sex.
  • Drug Test Laws: Depending on your industry, drug testing may be regulated by state and/or federal law.
  • Employee or Independent Contractor: There are laws that determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. Review the differences and how your earnings and taxes are impacted by your classification.
  • Employment at Will: The majority of private-sector workers in the U.S. are employed at will, which means that they can usually be fired for any reason or no reason at all.
  • Employment Credit Checks: There are rules about how credit checks can be used during the employment process, according to federal law.
  • Employment Discrimination Laws: Workers are protected from discrimination based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, skin color, national origin, mental or physical disability, genetic information, and pregnancy or parenthood.
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws relating to discrimination. 
  • Exempt Employees: If you’re not entitled to overtime pay, you’re an exempt employee. There are rules about how your employment status is designated.
  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA): You have legal protections if a prospective employer asks to run a background check.
  • Harassment: Learn what constitutes harassment in the workplace and what you can do about it.
  • Immigration and Nationality Act (INA): INA legislation specifies rules about work permits and wages for foreign nationals who want to work in the United States.
  • Information Employers Can Disclose: Many employers have policies about not giving away information about former employees, but that doesn’t mean that they’re legally prohibited from doing so.
  • Minimum Wage: The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but many states and metro areas set their own, higher minimum wage. Some states have also set lower wages, but in these cases, the higher federal minimum prevails.
  • Noncompete Agreements: These contracts restrict employees’ rights to work for a competitor.
  • Overtime Pay: Hourly workers or those who earn less than the weekly earnings threshold to be exempt, are entitled to time-and-a-half pay if they work more than 40 hours in a workweek.
  • Pay in Lieu of Notice: Employers may be mandated to provide notice. Pay in lieu of notice may be required in some circumstances.
  • Pay for Snow Days: You might get paid if your company closes because of inclement weather. It depends on many factors, including state and federal law.
  • Social Security Disability: If you’re disabled with a qualifying medical condition and have worked at jobs covered by Social Security, you might be entitled to disability support. In addition, some states have legislation providing short-term disability benefits.
  • Terminated for Cause: Termination for cause may require serious misconduct, like as violating company policy, failing a drug test, or breaking the law.
  • Unemployment Laws: Unemployment benefits are provided to workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
  • Unpaid Wages: You might be entitled to back pay from your current or previous employer.
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act: USERRA outlines procedures and rights related to military leave.
  • Wage Garnishment: Certain types of debt like tax bills and child support payments may be collected via wage garnishment. The Consumer Credit Protection Act sets limits and protections for workers.
  • Workers’ Compensation: State-provided insurance for workers who are injured on the job. 
  • Wrongful Termination: If you believe that discrimination was involved in your separation from the company, it’s possible that you were wrongfully terminated. You may be entitled to some kind of compensation.
  • The Wagner Act of 1935 and The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947: These laws protect the right of workers to organize and to form unions, and regulates how those unions can operate.

eLaw Advisors

If you need more information about specific labor laws, the eLaws Advisors are interactive tools provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. They provide detailed information about a number of federal employment laws.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of unfair labor practice?

An unfair labor practice (ULP) is any violation of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute. The Statute protects federal employees’ right to decide whether or not they want to join a union and more. For example, an agency could commit a ULP if an employee's request for a union representative was denied.

How many employment laws are there in the US?

The United States Department of Labor oversees and enforces more than 180 federal laws. These laws govern workplace activities for around 10 million workplaces and 150 million employees.

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  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor."

  2. DOL. "Break Time for Nursing Mothers."

  3. Social Security. "Benefits for People with Disabilities."

  4. DOL. "USERRA."

  5. DOL. "Workers' Compensation."

  6. FLRA. "Unfair Labor Practice."

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