Employment Law 101
Employment law covers all rights and obligations within the employer-employee relationship -- between employers and current employees, job applicants, or former employees. Because of the complexity of employment relationships and the wide variety of situations that can arise, employment law involves legal issues as diverse as discrimination, wrongful termination, wages and taxation, and workplace safety. Many of these issues are governed by applicable federal and state law. But, where the employment relationship is based on a valid contract entered into by the employer and the employee, state contract law alone may dictate the rights and duties of the parties.
Employee Rights and Employer Responsibilities in the Workplace
All employees have basic rights in the workplace -- including the right to privacy, fair compensation, and freedom from discrimination. A job applicant also has certain rights even prior to being hired as an employee. Those rights include the right to be free from discrimination based on age, gender, race, national origin, or religion during the hiring process.
Important employee rights include:
- Right to privacy (may be limited where e-mail and Internet use is concerned)
- Right to be free from discrimination and harassment of all types;
- Right to a safe workplace free of dangerous conditions, toxic substances, and other potential safety hazards;
- Right to be free from retaliation for filing a claim or complaint against an employer (these are sometimes called "whistleblower" rights);
- Right to fair wages for work performed.
Employers have an obligation to follow federal and state employment and labor laws -- including those pertaining to discrimination, fair pay, employee privacy, and safety in the workplace. The employer's legal obligations do not only pertain to hired employees, but extend to job applicants as well. For example, a prospective employer cannot ask a job applicant certain family-related questions during the hiring process.
Federal Regulations on Employment Relationships
Following is a quick summary of key federal laws related to employment. For more information, see Employment and Anti-Discrimination Laws: An Introduction
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.
- Prohibits employers from discriminating in the hiring process based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
- Prohibits discrimination against a person with a qualified disability.
- Provides that if an individual with a disability can perform essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation, that person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their disability.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act
- Prevents employers from giving preferential treatment to younger workers to the detriment of older workers.
- Only applies to workers 40 years of age and older, and to workplaces with 20 or more employees.
- Does not prevent an employer from favoring older employees over younger employees.
Fair Labor Standards Act
- Provides regulation as to the duration of work days, and breaks an employer must provide.
- Governs applicable salary and overtime requirements set out by the federal government.
Family and Medical Leave Act
- Provides that employers must allow employees to take up to a 12-week leave of absence for qualified medical purposes.
- Stipulates that to qualify for the leave, the employee must have worked for the employer for 12 months and for 1,250 hours in the 12 months preceding the leave.
- Preserves qualified employees' positions for the duration of the leave.
Employers have a variety of legal obligations in the workplace, established under both federal and state law. If you and/or your business are faced with a potential legal dispute with an employee, or if you need assistance with any employment law issue, it may be in your best interests to talk to an experienced employment law attorney who will explain your options and protect your legal rights.