Employment Law

U.S. employment law is a broad topic covering numerous areas, such as wages, child labor, safety and health standards, health benefits and hiring non-U.S. citizens. In addition, situations that could arise in the workplace, such as discrimination, sexual harassment or polygraph tests, are also covered by employment laws. Some employment laws are federal acts or provisions while companies often formulate additional rules, which obligate the employees of that company. Agricultural, construction and mining industries are often subject to their own body of laws.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, most employers must pay their workers at least the current minimum wage, plus provisions for overtime pay. There are exceptions to this rule, such as babysitters and newspaper deliverers. Children and teenagers may be paid a lower wage and often have restrictions on the amount of hours that they can work weekly and whether the types of jobs they want are considered hazardous.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) calls for employers to ensure that the place of employment is "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm" to employees. Usually, employers are required to provide workers with protective equipment (for example, hard hats for construction work, hearing protection, goggles) as needed. The law recognizes that different industries have different requirements, and, thus, there are different standards for general industry, agriculture, construction, maritime (dealing with shipyards and aboard ships) and mining industries. Employees working in nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons factories and various transportation industries are covered by other federal laws, rather than the OSH Act.

Companies with a certain number of employees are expected to establish retirement plans and provide health benefits, disability benefits and vacation benefits. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) allows employees to take unpaid leave in order to take care of a newborn baby or a newly adopted/fostered child; to provide care to a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition; or if the employee has a serious health conditions that prevents him or her from carrying out the job's responsibilities. In order to make use of the benefits of the FMLA, certain requirements must be met regarding prior work history and number of employees at the particular company.

Hiring non-U.S. citizens can be complex. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the only people allowed to work legally in the United States are either citizens/nationals of the United States or aliens who have received authorization to work in the country. Employers have to verify the identity of the potential employee as well as whether he or she is really eligible to be hired. Employees and employers must fill out the I-9 form, and the employer has to keep the I-9 form on file for a period of at least three years or a year after the employee leaves, whichever is longer.

Discrimination in hiring practices or in benefits, promotions, training or wages is illegal. This includes discrimination on the basis of the employee's

• age (meaning from age 40 and above)

• color

• gender

• national origin

• race

• religion

• pregnancy status

• physical or mental disabilities

Sexual harassment, declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1986, is considered a form of gender discrimination and involves whether a potential employee (male or female) has to submit to unwelcome sexual conduct in order to work in the company or if unwelcome verbal or physical sexual conduct interferes with the employee's work performance.

While it is illegal for employers to refuse to hire or promote a woman due to her pregnant status or to ask during the interview whether she is pregnant or if she is planning to become pregnant, some companies do have fetal protection policies. According to a Supreme Court ruling in 1991, however, the pregnant employee and her physician are the only ones who have the responsibility of determining whether conditions of the workplace are hazardous to the fetus, and the employee can ask for a transfer to a less strenuous job. The only time an employer can take the employee's pregnancy into account is if it interfers with the employee's ability to function at the job.

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act forbids most private employers from administering lie detector tests to employees except under certain cases. For example, lie detector tests can be administered to employees who are suspected of causing financial loss to the company through embezzlement or theft. Federal, state and local government employers may insist that their employees undergo polygraph tests, as may security firms and pharmaceutical companies.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Workplace Law Advisor: From Harassment and Discrimination Policies to Hiring and Firing Guidelines: What Every Manager and Employee Needs to Know
Anne Covey.
Perseus Publishing, 2000
Rights at Work: Employment Relations in the Post-Union Era
Richard Edwards.
Brookings Institution, 1993
Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy
Cynthia Estlund.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Communicating Employee Responsibilities and Rights: A Modern Management Mandate
Chimezie A. B. Osigweh.
Quorum Books, 1987
Individual Employment Disputes: Definite and Indefinite Term Contracts
Donald W. Brodie.
Quorum Books, 1991
The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation
Charles C. Heckscher.
Basic Books, 1988
Librarian’s tip: "The Development of Labor Law" begins on p. 43
Human Resources Employment Law: Keeping out of Harm's Way
Krell, Susan K.
Journal of Accountancy, Vol. 177, No. 1, January 1994
Labor and the Supreme Court: Significant Issues of 1992-96
Hukill, Craig.
Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 120, No. 1, January 1997
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