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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.

Protections Included Under the Law

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

How to File an Employment Discrimination Complaint

To file a complaint, contact your state, local 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

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:

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.

Laws that the EEOC Enforces

Federal employment discrimination laws include:

What is 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

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.

Situations Included Under FMLA

  • 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 Responsibilities Under FMLA

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.

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. These include the Fair labor Standards Act (FLSA). These laws govern:

  • Minimum wage

  • Overtime

  • Misclassification

State Labor Laws

In addition to the federal laws, each state has its own labor laws, which vary from state to state. 

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

If you’ve been misclassified, contact your state labor office or file a complaint with the Department of Labor.

Unsafe Workplace Complaints and Conditions

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

Ask a Question or File a Complaint About a Safety Issue in Your Workplace

Workers’ Safety 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

Workers' Compensation for Illness or Injury on the Job

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.

Benefits Provided by Workers' Compensation

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.

Longshore and Harbor Workers, Coal Miners, Nuclear Weapons Workers, and Federal Employees

Federal laws protect longshore and harbor workers, coal miners, nuclear weapons workers employed by the Department of Energy (DOE) or a DOE contractor, 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 Discharge/Termination 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: 

Employer Guidance for Discharge/Termination

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.

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Last Updated: May 10, 2021

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