Employment law covers the relationships between employers and their current, prospective and former employees. Both federal and state laws control various aspects of the employer-employee relationship, including each side’s rights and obligations. Because of the complexity of the employment relationship, this area of law involves issues as diverse as discrimination, record keeping, taxation and workplace safety.
There are also different types of employment relationships. Employment relationships can be based on a contract, or they can be “at-will.” If the employment relationship is based on a valid contract entered into by the employer and the employee, the terms of that contract will govern the relationship. By contrast, an at-will employment arrangement can be terminated at any time, with or without reason, by either the employer (as long as the reason does not constitute illegal discrimination) or the employee.
With all these factors to consider, it is clear why employment law is such a complex area. If you have an employment law concern, contact an experienced employment law attorney who can provide sound advice and skilled representation in a range of workplace-related matters.
Federal Regulations on Employment Relationships
Numerous federal laws apply to employment nationwide. Some laws affect only employers over a certain size, while others have different restrictions. The following is a quick summary of the major federal employment laws:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended:
- Applies only to employers with 15 or more employees
- Prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin or pregnancy
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Applies only to employers with 15 or more employees
- Defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- Is designed to prohibit discrimination against workers with disabilities
- Provides that if an individual with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job, with reasonable accommodation, that person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of the disability
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
- Applies only to employers with 20 or more employees
- Applies only to employees who are 40 years old or older
- Prevents employers from giving preferential treatment to younger workers to the exclusion of older workers when it comes to hiring, pay, benefits such as health insurance, job assignments and promotions
- Does not prevent an employer from favoring older employees over younger employees
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
- Applies to businesses that gross $500,000 or more per year and to other specific types of businesses
- Provides that qualified employees who work more than 40 hours in a week should receive time-and-a-half pay for the overtime
- Does not provide regulation as to the number and duration of breaks an employer must allow, but individual states may do so
- Specifies minimum wage requirements
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Applies only to employers with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the workplace
- Applies only to employees who have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave
- Provides that employers must allow employees to take up to a 12-week unpaid leave of absence for qualified family and medical reasons
- Preserves qualified employees’ positions for the duration of the leave
- Employees generally cannot be punished or demoted for taking valid FMLA leave
Employee Rights in the Workplace
All employees have basic rights in the workplace. Those rights include privacy and freedom from illegal discrimination. In addition to federal law, each state has enacted laws to protect the rights of workers. 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.
In most states, employees have a right to privacy in the workplace. This right to privacy can include one’s personal possessions, including handbags or briefcases, and storage lockers accessible only by employees. Employees also have a right to privacy in their personal telephone conversations. Employees have very little privacy or right to privacy, however, in their messages on company e-mail and their Internet usage on the employer’s computer system.
There are certain pieces of information that an employer may not seek out concerning a potential applicant or an employee. An employer may not conduct a credit or background check of an employee or a prospective employee unless the employer notifies the employee or applicant in writing that it intends to do so and receives authorization to do so.
In addition, most private employers may not require an employee or a prospective employee to submit to a polygraph (lie-detector test). There are very narrow exceptions to this rule if the employee is suspected of being involved in an incident that caused economic loss or injury to the employer or if the employee is being considered to drive an armored car, work for a security company, work with controlled substances or work in national security.
Employees have a variety of rights in the workplace, through both federal and state law. Employers, however, also have rights and protections under the law. It is important for both employers and employees to be aware of their legal rights and the duties they owe to each other. If you are an employee and you feel your rights have been violated or if you are an employer who has questions about proper procedure, contact an experienced employment law attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.