Labor Laws and Issues

Learn about some important employment laws and issues.

Discrimination and Harassment at Your Job

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. These laws protect employees and job applicants against:

  • Discrimination, harassment, and unfair treatment in the workplace by anyone because of:

    • Race

    • Color

    • Religion

    • Sex (including gender identity, transgender status, and sexual orientation)

    • Pregnancy

    • National origin

    • Age (40 or older)

    • Disability

    • Genetic information

  • Being denied reasonable workplace accommodations for disability or religious beliefs

  • Retaliation because they:

    • Complained about job discrimination

    • Helped with an investigation or lawsuit

Not All Employers Are Subject to EEOC Laws

An employer must have a certain number of employees to be covered by EEOC-enforced laws. This number varies based on the type of employer and the kind of discrimination alleged.

  • Businesses, state, and local governments must follow most EEOC laws if they have 15 or more employees.

  • Federal agencies must follow all EEOC laws, no matter how many employees they have.

Filing a Charge with the EEOC

If you are being harassed or discriminated against, you can file a charge with the EEOC. In most cases, you must file within 180 days of the event. You can:

  • Contact the EEOC at 1-800-669-4000 or info@eeoc.gov to learn about the filing process.

Federal employees and job applicants have different complaint procedures.

Filing a Complaint with State or Local Government or Tribal Employment Rights Office

Many state and local governments have their own anti-discrimination laws. These laws may offer extra protections beyond federal laws.

Some state laws:

  • Apply to businesses with only five or six employees

  • Prohibit discrimination based on whether you're married or have children

  • Have different deadlines for filing a charge

  • Have different standards for deciding whether you’re covered by them

To file a complaint, find your state, local. or tribal employment rights office:

Many state laws have more protections for nursing mothers than federal law requires. State labor offices enforce these laws.

Filing a Lawsuit

If you're a victim of job discrimination or harassment, you can file a lawsuit. If the discrimination violates federal law, you must first file a charge with the EEOC. (This doesn't apply to cases of unequal pay between men and women.)

You may decide to sue if the EEOC can’t help you. In either case, look for an attorney who specializes in employment law. You can check with:

  • American Bar Association

Laws that the EEOC Enforces

Federal employment discrimination laws include:

Harassment

Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on:

  • Race

  • Color

  • Religion

  • Sex

  • National origin

  • Age

  • Pregnancy

  • Disability

  • Genetic information

It can include:

  • Offensive jokes

  • Physical assaults or threats

  • Ridicule or insults

  • Display of offensive objects or pictures

Sexual harassment may include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances

  • Requests for sexual favors

  • Other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature

  • Offensive remarks about a person's sex

Harassment becomes illegal when:

  • It creates a hostile or abusive work environment

  • The victim gets fired or demoted for refusing to put up with it

Protection from Retaliation

EEOC laws protect employees and job applicants from retaliation. For example, it’s unlawful to punish people for:

  • Filing or being a witness in an EEO charge or investigation

  • Talking to a supervisor or manager about discrimination or harassment

  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination

  • Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others

Employment Background Checks

Local, state, or federal government agencies and private employers may perform background checks when they hire an employee.

The FBI has contact information for the state agencies that conduct background checks

Request a Copy of a Federal Background Check or an Identification Record

The FBI website has information on how to request a federal background check or an identification record request.

Following the information on how to request a federal background check, you'll find information on how to challenge inaccurate or incomplete information that appears on your record.

Arrest Records

If you are looking for information on arrest records, contact the appropriate law enforcement agency.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal labor law that allows an eligible employee to take an extended leave of absence from work due to:

  • Illness
  • Caring for a qualifying sick family member
  • The birth or adoption of a child
  • Military caregiving or other emergencies related to a family member's active duty service

 

This unpaid leave is guaranteed by law and is available to workers at companies with 50 or more employees. FMLA fact sheets can help you understand your rights and coverage.

Questions or Reporting a Violation of the FMLA

If you have unanswered questions about the FMLA or you believe someone has violated your rights under FMLA, contact the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for assistance.

Employer Information

Employers with FMLA eligible employees have specific rights and responsibilities under the law. Learn how different types of employers may be covered by the FMLA.

If you are an employer with concerns about false FMLA leave, contact the Wage and Hour Division with any questions about FMLA compliance and seek the advice of your company's legal and human resources departments.

Labor Unions

A labor union or trade union is an organization of workers which bargains with employers on behalf of its members. The purpose of a labor union is to negotiate labor contracts. Elected leaders of labor unions negotiate specific items of employment including:

  • Pay and benefits
  • Working conditions
  • Complaint procedures
  • Hiring and firing guidelines
  • Help with unfair labor practices

When a union leader negotiates an agreement, it’s binding on the union members and the employer. Sometimes, these agreements affect non-union workers as well. Labor unions can be found in the private sector and at government agencies.  

Private Sector (Non-Government) Employees

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency. It oversees and protects the rights of most private-sector (non-government) employees. The NLRB helps employees determine whether to have unions as their bargaining representative.

  • You or your co-workers can start, join, or end union representation by filing a petition form. Your petition must show the support of at least 30 percent of your fellow employees.
  • If you have a complaint about a union, contact your nearest NLRB regional office.
  • The NLRB does not handle certain forms of employment discrimination including:
    • Race
    • Sex
    • Workplace safety
    • Entitlement to overtime pay
    • Family and medical leave

Visit the related agencies section of the NLRB website to see which state or federal agency can help with your specific complaint.

Federal and State Government Employees

  • If you’re a federal employee and have a question or complaint about federal unions, contact the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). The FLRA an independent federal agency responsible for the labor-management relations program. It establishes policies and resolves disputes for most federal employees and their managers.
  • If your federal agency doesn’t have a union, you and your co-workers can start one. Contact an FLRA regional office and file a petition form.
  • If you’re a state or local government employee and have a question about unions, contact the information officer of the NLRB regional office closest to your job. 

Minimum Wage, Overtime, and Misclassification

The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) administers and enforces some of the nation's most comprehensive labor laws. They include:

Minimum Wage

  • The federal minimum wage is the lowest legal hourly pay for many workers. Tipped employees may have a different wage.

Overtime Pay

An employer may require or permit a worker to work overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act states that workers who clock more than 40 hours per week are to get overtime pay. There are few exceptions to this rule.

Misclassification

An employer says a worker is an independent contractor. The law says the worker is an employee. That's misclassification, which can:

  • Affect a worker’s pay, protections, and benefits

  • Cause tax problems for both businesses and workers

Resources and Next Steps

Learn About Your State's Labor Laws

Labor laws vary by state. Contact the state government for information about specific laws where you work.

Unsafe Workplace Complaints and Conditions

Several different federal government agencies handle questions or complaints about workplace issues, depending on the nature of the issue:

Workers’ Rights

As an employed worker, you’re entitled to certain rights in the workplace - especially ones that keep you safe. These include the right to:

  • Be trained in a language that you understand
  • Be provided with the necessary safety equipment
  • Report injury or illness
  • Voice your concern over unsafe working conditions without fear of retaliation

In order to improve safety in the workplace, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) updated its existing rules regarding how employers must report injury or illness in the workplace.

As of January 1, 2017, certain employers are required to electronically submit injury or illness data. Doing this allows OSHA to improve enforcement of workplace safety requirements and provide valuable information online for workers, job seekers, customers, and the general public. The new rule also prohibits employers from discouraging their workers from reporting an injury or illness.

Workers' Compensation

Workers' compensation laws protect employees who get hurt on the job or sick from it. The laws establish workers’ comp, a form of insurance that employers pay for. These laws vary from state to state and for federal employees.

What Benefits Does Workers' Comp Provide?

In general, workers’ comp provides:

  • Coverage for workers’ medical expenses

  • Compensation for lost wages while a worker is out recovering  

  • Benefits for dependents of workers who died from job-related hazards

Private Sector and State or Local Government Employees

If you get hurt working for a private company or state or local government, seek help through your state. Your state workers' compensation program can help you file a claim. If your claim is denied, you can appeal.

Longshoremen, Harbor Workers, Coal Miners, and Federal Employees

Federal laws protect longshoremen, harbor workers,  coal miners, and federal employees. Contact the workers' compensation program that applies to you for help filing a claim.

Wrongful Discharge/Termination of Employment

If you feel that you have been wrongfully fired from a job or let go from an employment situation, you may wish to learn more about your state's wrongful discharge laws.

  • Wrongful termination or wrongful discharge laws vary from state to state.
  • Some states are "employment-at-will" states, which means that if there is no employment contract (or collective bargaining agreement), an employer can let an employee go for any reason, or no reason, with or without notice, as long as the discharge does not violate a law.

 

If you feel you have been wrongfully discharged or terminated from employment, you may: 

Employers

If you are an employer seeking information about legal termination of employees, you may wish to contact both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and your State Labor Office to ensure you do not violate any federal or state labor laws. You may wish to consult with a licensed attorney.

Youth Labor Laws

Youth labor laws help keep young workers safe on the job and keep work from interfering with school. They can also protect teens from job discrimination.

Youth Rights and Restrictions on Types of Work, Hours, and Pay

If you’re under 18 and want to get a job, it’s important to know what rights and restrictions you have as a worker. Youth labor laws exist to protect you from unsafe and inappropriate work experiences. They’re also meant to ensure your job doesn’t interfere with your schooling. These laws establish:

  • What types of work you’re allowed to do

  • When you’re allowed to work

  • How many hours per week you’re allowed to work

  • How much you should be paid

The Department of Labor’s Youth Rules website helps you:

  • Know the Rules: Select your age and learn what work you’re allowed to do and when you’re allowed to work.  

  • Find Support: Learn about other agencies that can help you and learn how to file a complaint.

Youth Rules also helps employers, parents and educators stay informed. And it has a law library with federal and state youth employment laws. The rules for young employees are different depending on your age and the state you live in. When federal and state rules are different, the rules that provide the most protection apply.

Safety and Health Standards for Teens on the Job

Employers must follow all Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) standards. These help protect you from injury at work. Besides following the federal and state rules on youth labor, employers must:

  • Provide a hazard-free workplace

  • Give you training on potential workplace safety issues

  • Provide you with resources to answer your questions on safety or health in the workplace

  • Tell you what to do if you get hurt on the job  

OSHA provides resources for young workers, including information on how to protect yourself in jobs in:

  • Restaurants

  • Agriculture

  • Construction

  • Landscaping

Civil Rights Protections for Teens at Work

Youth@Work, a division of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),  will help you:

  • Learn your rights as a young worker

  • Identify workplace discrimination

  • Learn what laws are enforced by the EEOC

  • File a complaint if you suspect workplace discrimination

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Last Updated: July 18, 2019