Labor Laws and Issues

Learn about some important employment laws and issues.

Discrimination and Harassment at Your Job

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. These laws protect you against many types of employment discrimination including:

  • Unfair treatment because of your race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, transgender status, and sexual orientation), pregnancy, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information
  • Discrimination or harassment by managers, co-workers, or others in your workplace because of your race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, transgender status, and sexual orientation), pregnancy, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information
  • Denial of a reasonable workplace accommodation that you need because of your religious beliefs or disability
  • Retaliation because you complained about job discrimination, or assisted with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit

Some of the most popular laws dealing with employment discrimination include:

Learn more about harassment and discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers. These protections apply regardless of any contrary state or local laws.  

Find out more about protections for workers against harassment and discrimination because of national origin.

Equal Pay/Compensation Discrimination

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. The jobs need not be identical, but they must be substantially equal. Job content (not job title) determines whether jobs are substantially equal.

  • All forms of pay are covered by this law, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, cleaning or gasoline allowances, hotel accommodations, reimbursement for travel expenses, and benefits.
  • If there is an inequality in wages between men and women, employers may not reduce the wages of either sex to equalize their pay.
  • Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA prohibit compensation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation or transgender status, national origin, age, or disability.
  • An individual alleging a violation of the EPA may go directly to court and is not required to file an EEOC charge beforehand.
  • The time limit for filing an EPA charge with the EEOC and the time limit for going to court are the same: within two years of the alleged unlawful compensation practice or, in the case of a willful violation, within three years.
  • The filing of an EEOC charge under the EPA does not extend the time frame for going to court.
  • Someone who has an Equal Pay Act claim may also have a claim under Title VII.

 

Harassment

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination consisting of unwelcome or offensive conduct toward a worker that is based on that worker’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, pregnancy, disability, or genetic (personal or family medical history) information.  

  • Harassment becomes illegal when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.
  • The harassment is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
  • Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.
  • To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Offensive, harassing conduct may include, but is not limited to:

  • Offensive jokes, slurs, epithets, or name calling
  • Physical assaults, threats, or intimidation
  • Verbal or written ridicule, mockery, insults, or put-downs
  • Display or use of offensive objects or pictures
  • Malicious interference with work performance

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is illegal and may include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature 
  • Harassment that is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment
  • Harassment that results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)

Points to remember:

  • Both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

If you believe that the harassment you are experiencing or witnessing is of a specifically sexual nature, you may want to see EEOC's information on sexual harassment.

Filing a Complaint

An employer must have a certain number of employees to be covered by EEOC laws. This number varies depending on the type of employer (for example, whether the employer is a private company, a state or local government agency, a federal agency, an employment agency, or a labor union) and the kind of discrimination alleged (for example, discrimination based on a person's race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, and sexual orientation), pregnancy, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information).

Learn more about your coverage and protections.

If you are being harassed or discriminated against, you can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A complaint can be filed within 180 days from the time of the event; this time limit could be extended in some situations.

  • Call 1-800-669-4000 to file a complaint with your local EEOC office.  
  • Use this map to find the EEOC office that handles federal complaints in your state or territory.
  • Contact your state Labor Office to learn more about filing a complaint in your state.
  • Learn how to file discrimination or harassment complaints against programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance and employers holding federal contracts or subcontracts.
  • Contact your state or tribal Fair Employment Practices office.
  • Federal employees and job applicants have a different complaint process.

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibit retaliation including punishing job applicants or employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination and/or harassment.  Asserting these EEO rights is called "protected activity," and it can take many forms.  For example, it is unlawful to retaliate against applicants or employees for:

  • Filing or being a witness in an EEO charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
  • Communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment
  • Answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment
  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination
  • Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others
  • Requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice
  • Asking managers or co-workers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages

Participating in a complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances. Other acts to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws, even if he or she did not use legal terminology to describe it.

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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.

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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 or to care for a sick family member. The leave, guaranteed by the FMLA, is unpaid and is available to those working for employers with 50 or more employees.

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, visit the Wage and Hour Division website or contact them for assistance. Have this information available when filing a complaint. 

Employer Information

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

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

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Labor Unions

A labor union or trade union is an organization of workers which bargains with employers on behalf of union members and negotiates labor contracts. Elected union leaders negotiate specific items of employment including:

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

Agreements union leaders negotiate are binding on the union members, the employer, and in some cases, on other non-union workers. Labor unions can be found in the private sector, federal agencies or at a state or local government place of employment.

Private Sector Employees

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency which has oversight to protect the rights of most private-sector employees to organize and to determine whether to have unions as their bargaining representative.

If you and your co-workers want to start a union, or join or end your representation in an existing one, file 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 complaints or inquiries about certain forms of employment discrimination such as race, sex, issues regarding workplace safety, entitlement to overtime pay, or family and medical leave. Federal and state laws and agencies regulate those forms of employment discrimination. Visit the related agencies section of NLRB website to see which agency can help with your specific complaint.  

Federal and State Government Employees

If you are a federal employee, and have a question or complaint about federal unions, contact the Federal Labor Relations Authority (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 you and your fellow employees want to be represented by a union, contact a FLRA regional office to see if one already exists at your agency. If one does not exist and you are interested in representation, file a petition form with your closest FLRA regional office.

If you are 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. 

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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, including:

Minimum Wage

Overtime Pay

An employer may require or permit a worker to work overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that workers who clock more than 40 hours per week receive overtime pay with few exceptions.

Misclassification

Misclassification is when an employer declares that a worker is an independent contractor instead of an employee, even if that worker should be classified as an employee under the law. This can affect a worker’s pay, protections, and benefits as well as cause tax problems for both businesses and workers.

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

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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.

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Workers' Compensation

Workers' compensation laws:

  • ensure that employees who are injured or disabled on the job receive fixed payments.
  • provide benefits for dependents of workers who died due to work-related accidents or illnesses.
  • protect employers and fellow workers by limiting the amount an injured employee can recover from an employer and by removing the co-workers' liability in most accidents.

Private Sector and State/Local Government Employees

Individuals injured on the job while employed by private companies or state and local government agencies should contact their state workers' compensation program for eligibility, assistance, and filing procedures for workers' compensation benefits.

Federal Employees, Longshoremen, Harbor Workers, and Coal Miners

If you are a federal employee, longshoreman, harbor worker, or coal miner, contact the appropriate Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) that applies to you. OWCP representatives can help you with claim procedures.

Workers' Compensation Appeals

The appeals process for workers' compensation varies from state to state. If you received a denial of benefits and you wish to file an appeal, contact your state workers' compensation office for information on how to file.

You may also wish to contact a licensed attorney.

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Wrongful Discharge/Termination of Employment

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) which provides otherwise, 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: 

  • Contact your State Labor Office for more information on wrongful termination laws in your state.
  • Seek legal counsel if your employer terminated you for any reason not covered under state or federal law.

You may also be eligible for unemployment compensation.

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.

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Youth Labor Laws

Types of Work, Hours, and Pay

If you are under 18 and want to get a job it is important to know what rights and restrictions you have as a worker. Youth labor laws are designed to protect you from unsafe and inappropriate work experiences and to ensure that 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.

It also helps employers, parents and educators stay informed.

Youth Rules also has a Law Library, which includes both federal and state laws.  Rules vary 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

Employers must follow all Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) standards to keep you from being injured at work. In addition to following the federal and state rules on youth labor, employers must:

  • Provide a hazard-free workplace
  • Provide training on potential workplace hazards
  • 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 restaurant, agricultural, construction, and landscaping jobs.

You can find statistics and other details on job-related hazards and injuries at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Young Worker site.

Equal Employment Opportunities

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: August 10, 2017

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