Employment law is the body of law that defines the rights and obligations within the relationship between employer and employee. This employer-employee relationship can be between employer and potential employees, current employees, or former employees. Employment law consists of numerous Federal and state statutes as well as judicial decisions that regulate a variety of situations, including discrimination, wrongful termination, and sexual harassment.
Every employee has basic rights in the workplace. Those rights include the right to be free from discrimination, the right to a safe work environment, the right to privacy, the right to fair wages, and the right to contest an unfair discharge from employment. These rights extend to those applying for job positions and formal employees as well. Every employer has an obligation to adhere to these national and state employment laws. As with employee rights, employer obligations extend, not only to hired employees, but to job applicants as well.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, federal and state governments have enacted a number of laws that prohibit an employer from discriminating against employees on almost all grounds, aside from the quality of the employee's work or the nature of his or her personality. Employment discrimination laws seek to prevent discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability, and age by employers. A growing body of law also seeks to prevent employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Discriminatory practices include but are not limited to bias in hiring and firing, compensation, promotion, job assignment, recruitment, and various types of harassment. The United States Constitution and many state constitutions provide additional protection when the employer is a governmental body. Almost every state has antidiscrimination laws that mirror the protections found under federal law. Some state statutes and local ordinances also have more expansive protection than federal law. For example, some state law prohibits discrimination based on marital status or weight.
Below is a general overview of the federal laws regarding employment discrimination and employment law generally. Since employment laws vary greatly from state to state, it is important to understand the employment laws within your state.
Employment Discrimination law arises mostly out of the Title VII section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits an employer with 15 or more employees from discriminating on the basis of race, national origin, gender, or religion during almost any aspect of employment, including interviewing, hiring, assignments, promotion, training, pay, title, hours, vacation, benefits, retirement plans, and other terms of employment. Title VII also protects employees and employers from sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment refers to any unwelcome sexual conduct, including sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, when submitting to or rejecting such conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s ability to work or when the conduct creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.
Wrongful Termination generally refers to an unreasonable employment discharge. Most employees, except those working under certain contracts, are considered by the law to be at-will employees. The at-will doctrine, adopted by all 50 United States, gives at-will employees the right to quit their jobs for almost any reason. It also gives employers of at-will employees the right to fire those employees for almost any reason. Many states have started to work around the at-will doctrine, in order to provide remedies for certain wrongful termination lawsuits. For example, some state and federal laws prohibit employers from terminating any employee for discriminatory reasons. Other areas in which wrongful termination may be claimed are when one is fired in violation of employment agreements, when one is fired in violation of labor laws, or when one is fired in retaliation for having done something against the employer’s wishes.
The ADEA protects hired employees and job applicants who are 40 years of age or older from being discriminated against because of their age. It prohibits employers with 20 or more employees, as well as employment agencies, labor unions and governments from age discrimination with respect to almost all aspects of employment: interviewing, hiring, assignments, promotion, training, compensation, title, hours, vacation, benefits, retirement plans, and other terms of employment.
Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination based on physical or mental handicap by private employers and state and local governments with 15 or more employees. This obligation also extends to employment agencies and labor unions. The ADA prohibits discrimination in almost all aspects of employment, including job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. Unlike other civil rights laws which protect easily-identifiable classes such as race or gender, in order to be protected by the ADA an employee or applicant must show that he or she is, in fact, disabled, has a history of being disabled, or was regarded by the employer as being disabled.
The Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from paying males and females different wages for performing the same job. It requires that all employees receive “equal pay for equal work”. This Act applies only to pay equities regarding gender. It does not address pay equities with respect to other characteristics, such as race, religion, age or national origin.
The FLSA requires employers who are engaged in interstate or foreign commerce and whose gross annual sales are $500,000 or more to comply with minimum-wage regulations, overtime pay requirements, and child labor restrictions.
The ERISA provides protection for individuals in private industries who voluntarily establish a welfare benefit plan or retirement plan, such as a pension or health insurance plan. The ERISA requires plans to provide individuals with information regarding features of the plan and funding methods. It also provides fiduciary responsibilities for those who manage and control plan assets, requires plans to maintain a grievance and appeals procedure for individuals to get benefits from their plans, and it gives individuals the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty. The ERISA does not cover group health plans maintained by governmental or religious entities.
The FMLA requires employers with fifty or more employees to provide their employees with the equivalent of twelve weeks of unpaid leave each year for one or more of the following reasons: the birth or adoption of a child, to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or to take medical leave because of a personal serious health condition. The FMLA also requires that, after twelve weeks of unpaid leave, the employer reinstate the employee to the same job previously held or to an equivalent job if the original position is no longer available.