What is Employment Law?
Employment law governs the rights and duties between employers and workers. Also referred to as labor law, these rules are primarily designed to keep workers safe and make sure they are treated fairly, although laws are in place to protect employers’ interests as well. Employment laws are based on federal and state constitutions, legislation, administrative rules, and court opinions. A particular employment relationship may also be governed by contract.
American labor laws trace back to public outcry against the oppressive practices of the industrial revolution. In the early 20th century, the first laws were passed to compensate injured workers, establish a minimum wage, create a standard work week, and outlaw child labor. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Congress acted to prohibit discrimination and unsafe work conditions. Current issues involve employee healthcare and equal pay for men and women.
Many of the employment disputes that result in litigation deal with “wage and hour” violations. Federal law establishes baseline rules with respect to these issues, and then states are free to pass laws providing additional protections. For example, federal law requires a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Several states have approved a higher minimum wage, and employers in those states must comply.
Wage and hour laws also regulate overtime pay. The federal government does not place limits on the number of hours adults may work per week, but after 40 hours time and a half must be paid. Rules exist to control the hours and working conditions for workers under age 18, with special provisions for those working in the agricultural sector. In addition, these laws require employers to post notices and keep basic payroll records.
Discrimination in the workplace is another basis for many employment law cases. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation makes it illegal to treat workers differently based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, age, or disability. Hiring an attorney to pursue a discrimination claim is recommended, as detailed procedures must be followed, such as obtaining a Right-To-Sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The “At Will” Presumption
In nearly every state, the law presumes that employment relationships are at will. That is to say, employers and employees are free to terminate the relationship at any time and for any reason. This presumption can be overcome by showing the parties entered into an employment contract or made other promises regarding when and how the relationship would end. Courts will also ignore the at will presumption when one of several exceptions applies.
The most common exceptions involve matters of public policy. For example, employers cannot fire workers for discriminatory reasons. Likewise, they cannot fire an employee in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim, or for disclosing a violation of law to the authorities (whistle blowing). A minority of states also prohibit employers from terminating employees in bad faith, such as firing a worker to avoid paying a bonus or other benefit.
As mentioned, employers and workers may enter into employment contracts. Such contracts can describe the length of employment, compensation, disciplinary procedures, reasons for termination, and so forth. As long as the contract is otherwise legal, it will be enforced in lieu of the at will doctrine. Moreover, contract terms can be created by implication, based on oral assurances and other conduct, even in the absence of a written document.
In cases involving an employment contract, courts are often called upon to interpret the meaning of specific clauses. Promises not to compete are one example. These clauses prevent former employees from engaging in the same trade in the same market or geographical area. Restrictions against disclosing trade secrets are another example. Employment attorneys routinely litigate these types of issues.
A number of other workplace matters can arise in employment law cases. This has led attorneys who restrict their practices to labor law to further specialize in areas such as unemployment insurance claims, worker’s compensation, sexual harassment, and compliance issues involving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). For those involved in an employment dispute, finding an attorney with the right training can make all the difference.