8 Federal Laws That Protect Employees


Worker protections were not always as robust as they are today. Every improvement in working conditions and compensation, from the minimum wage to the 40-hour workweek, was hard fought and at times controversial, with plenty of setbacks along the way.

These advances in worker protection and employment law did not come easy, and that is why it is so important for individual employees to understand their rights and responsibilities under the law. Specifically, it is important to understand the implications of the most important employment protection laws, starting with the eight outlined below.

#1. The Minimum Wage

Even after all these years, the minimum wage continues to be a point of contention for politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans. Some claim that increasing the minimum wage puts low-wage workers at risk and actually reduces employment opportunities, while others feel that giving employees a living wage boosts the economy and raises standards of living for everyone.

Regardless of how you feel about this contentious issue, it is important to understand your rights under the law. Workers have the right to a minimum wage. The law that protects workers is known as the Fair Labor Standards Act, and it guarantees that all American workers are paid a minimum wage for the work they do. As of 2009, most public and private employers must pay their employees a minimum of $7.25 per hour, although many states guarantee a higher wage. The FLSA also ensures that non-exempt employees are paid time-and-a-half for any overtime hours they work.

#2. Workplace Safety

The applicable law when it comes to workplace safety is known as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and it was designed to minimize the dangers posed to American workers. This law created a number of safety provisions, from guidelines for specific industries to prohibitions on practices that present a clear risk to the safety of employees.

Primary responsibility for enforcement of the act falls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but specific state agencies often have jurisdiction and the ability to enforce workplace safety laws. The protections of the act extend to most employees, although the self-employed and those who work for small family farms are exempt from these regulations.

#3. Health Coverage

Health coverage is another contentious issue and another important protection for American workers. First passed in 2010, the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, sought to make health insurance coverage a right for employees of most medium and large-sized businesses. To accomplish that goal, the ACA established the Employer Shared Responsibility Payment, a provision that requires businesses with 50 or more full-time employees to offer those workers a minimal level of health insurance coverage. Businesses who fail to make health insurance available to their workers face a substantial penalty under the ACA.

In order to qualify for coverage under the ACA, employees must work a minimum of 30 hours a week. This is considered full-time employment under the Affordable Care Act. Although the law was passed in 2010, some provisions, including the requirement for employer-sponsored coverage, did not go fully into effect until 2015.

#4. Social Security

The Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935, one of the signature achievements of President Roosevelt’s administration. The Social Security Act was designed to provide retired and disabled workers with a financial safety net, lifting many seniors out of poverty in the process.

These days, Social Security covers more than 59 million Americans, providing them with checks each month. The average annual payout for Social Security is currently $1,294 a month for retired workers and $1,146 a month for those with disabilities.

Social Security benefits are funded by a payroll tax, with employers and employees contributing an equal amount to the fund. This tax is currently 6.2% of the employee’s earnings, but there is a cap above which these taxes are no longer collected. It is important to note that self-employed individuals are responsible for both the employer and the employee portion of the Social Security payroll tax, essentially doubling their tax burden to 12.4% of earnings.

#5. Unemployment Benefits

Protections for unemployed workers are an important part of the social safety net, and it is important that employees understand their rights under the law. Each state is responsible for establishing its own agency for unemployment benefits, but the jobless benefits themselves are actually provided through a joint federal-state process. The state manages payments to unemployed workers, but they must meet federal guidelines regarding how those payments are made and under what circumstances.

In order to qualify for unemployment payments, workers must have been unemployed due to circumstances outside of their control, such as a layoff or firing. Laid-off and fired workers must also meet any state-specific guidelines to qualify for payments. If they qualify, eligible workers can receive unemployment compensation benefits for up to 26 weeks, although payments can be extended during periods of recession or economic upheaval.

#6. Whistleblower Protections

The protection of whistleblowers is another important right American workers enjoy, although this protection can be quite complicated. There is currently a patchwork of federal statutes designed to protect employees who report the wrongdoings of their employers. Sometimes these whistleblower protections are built into pieces of legislation that govern a particular industry. For instance, the Clean Air Act protects workers who report violations of environmental law, while the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act provides protection to workers who find and reveal illegal manufacturing policies and practices.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) Whistleblower Protection Program is primarily responsible for the protection of employees, who often fear losing their jobs and other reprisals if they report illegal activity by the companies they work for. Employees who feel that they have suffered such retribution can file a complaint through their local OSHA offices, but such reports must be made within 30 days of the incident in question.

#7. Family Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. As a result of the FMLA, eligible workers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year if they opt to stay home following the birth or adoption of a child. The FMLA also provides protection and time off for workers who need time off to deal with the serious illness of a family member.

To be eligible for benefits under the FMLA, the worker must have been with the company for a minimum of 12 months, and they must have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours over the past year. The protections of the FMLA apply only to businesses that employ 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius.

#8. Employment-Based Discrimination

The final law on our list is designed to protect eligible workers against employment-based discrimination, and those protections are very important. These protections are based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which represented a major turning point in American history. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers may not discriminate based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 followed some 45 years later, strengthening the original rights of workers and providing additional protections. Specifically, the Lily Ledbetter Act prohibits wage discrimination based on sex and minority status. There are also laws in place to protect against age discrimination and workers with disabilities. The laws that protect those rights are known as the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, respectively.

American workers are afforded significant protections against discrimination, unfair pay, recrimination and a host of other issues. Taken together, these eight laws provide an important set of protections, and it is important for all employees to understand these rights.

Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?

The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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