8 Federal Laws Designed to Protect Employees

The United States has a variety of comprehensive employment laws designed to support and safeguard employees. It is important for workers to be aware of this legislation to exercise their rights and understand their responsibilities. There are eight types of federal employment laws regarding worker protection.

(1) The Minimum Wage

The US first passed a minimum wage law in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The law ensures that employees receive time-and-a-half pay for working more than 40 hours a week and also outlaws child labor. The FLSA additionally established a tipping exemption to the law, wherein employees who earn more than $30 in tips can receive as little as $2.13 per hour in pay. However, if an employee’s tips and regular wages do not add up to the current federal minimum wage, their employer is legally obligated to make up the difference. The more recent Fair Minimum Wage Act passed in 2007 guarantees employees a minimum of $7.25 an hour. However, the tipping exemption has remained intact.

(2) Workplace Safety

In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed to cover workplace safety and health issues. OSHA protects workers from mechanical and chemical hazards in the workplace by requiring employers to maintain a safe working environment, provide appropriate protective gear, and follow all safety standards for the type of work in which the organization is engaged. The law also mandates reporting serious incidents within eight hours of injury or death and reporting all injuries and illnesses that occur on-site in a detailed log. Furthermore, OSHA blocks employees from being harassed or fired by their employer for following OSHA laws and procedures.

(3) Health Coverage

Several different federal laws govern health coverage in the workplace. The leading healthcare law is the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which mandates that all businesses with more than 50 full-time employees must provide a health insurance plan to their workers. The law also established a tax credit for small businesses to help pay for insurance.

The first comprehensive American law regarding workplace insurance was the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Passed in 1974, ERISA ensures that private employers provide their workers with a summary of their health benefit plans in clear, easy-to-understand language. ERISA also requires informing employees of their rights and privileges relating to health benefits.

Typically known as a health privacy law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) also has a provision for employees. Mainly, HIPAA restricts employers from denying coverage based solely on preexisting conditions after one year or 18 months. The law also legalizes the use of higher copays or premiums for patients who use tobacco or have a high BMI.

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows employees to continue their work-based health plans after being fired, laid off or experiencing severely reduced work hours. Companies with more than 20 workers must provide COBRA benefits. Employees have only 60 days after initial notification to sign up for COBRA benefits, which typically last from 18 to 36 months.

(4) Social Security

The Social Security Act of 1935 established payroll taxes to fund an old-age pension plan for workers who retire at 62. Full benefits are paid out monthly based on the person’s previous monthly earnings and year of birth. Those born after 1960 must wait until age 67 to receive full benefits. The employee’s earlier monthly income, adjusted for fluctuations in the economy, determine the amount of the pension. Typically, this means an employee who retires before 62 will receive a smaller amount when they become eligible, and an employee who retires after 65 will get a larger payout. Social Security also pays a pension to permanently or temporarily disabled employees that can not work and sometimes to their eligible relatives.

(5) Unemployment Benefits

The 1939 Federal Unemployment Tax Act codified benefits for unemployed workers. The act provides funding for federal-state joint programs designed to disburse unemployment insurance to workers who are laid off, and in selected cases, fired. Eligibility for unemployment benefits varies from state to state. Each state requires a minimum period of employment, meaning workers laid off soon after being hired are not eligible for unemployment. Typically, beneficiaries must prove they are actively searching for a new position. Benefits are offered for no more than 26 weeks in some states and less in others. Although paid by the state, benefits are also subject to federal taxes.

(6) Whistleblower Protections

The Whistleblower Protection Act, passed in 1989, was designed to protect whistleblowers in the federal government. The law safeguards employees from being harmed if they report illegal, wasteful, or abusive activity in a federal agency. Other federal legislation enacted since passage of the 1989 law allows private-sector whistleblowers to notify OSHA and EPA if they have been harmed or punished by their employers for blowing the whistle.

Some federal whistleblowers may be eligible for a financial reward, including whistleblowers who report tax fraud and tax underpayment to the IRS. Whistleblowers working in the private sector may also be covered by state laws, although local laws typically focus on protecting workers and not compensating them monetarily for their actions.

(7) Family Leave

To ensure that employees could take time off from work for emergencies, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. The law is designed to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks off without pay to tend to important family or health-related business. Under the law, parents with a recently born child are permitted to take family leave. The law also applies to newly adopted or fostered children.

Other covered reasons are long-term illness and caring for a sick or injured relative. The law also prohibits employers from exacting retribution on their employees. In most cases, the employer must also keep the position open and preserve the employee’s benefits. A physician or certified healthcare provider must sign paperwork for medical family leave. Only those who have been in their place of employment for at least one year are eligible for the benefit. Family leave is also available for immediate relatives of deployed military personnel.

(8) Employment-Based Discrimination

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first federal law barring discrimination in hiring practices. The act safeguards against employment bias based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Discrimination against employees 40 years and older was prohibited by the Age Discrimination Act of 1967.

The federal government issued further safeguards with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, which protects qualified workers who are disabled. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles administrative complaints, charges, and lawsuits that stem from employment discrimination. Unfair hiring practices, wrongful termination and discriminatory treatment during job training are all under the purview of the EEOC.

From wage laws to benefits regulations, federal laws provide strong protections for American workers. Whether designed to protect employees from retaliation or intended to sustain retirees financially, federal employment laws have one purpose: to safeguard the rights of American employees.

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