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Federal Laws Protecting Employees

There are a number of federal laws that affect the employer-employee relationship and offer protection to employees. This article provides a brief overview of some of these laws. In addition, many states have their own laws that offer similar protections to employees.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)

The ADEA applies to employers that have 20 or more employees. This law provides protection for employees age 40 and older from age-based discrimination. Illegal age discrimination can take a number of different forms, including discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion, training, benefits, compensation, layoffs and other employment terms and conditions.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA prohibits an employer with 15 or more employees from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability because of that disability in job application procedures; the hiring, advancement or discharge of employees; employee compensation; job training; and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment. Under the ADA, disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. If an individual with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodation, an employer cannot discriminate against that person based on the disability.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Under the FMLA, employers must allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave in a 12-month period for qualified family or medical reasons such as the birth or care of a child, adoption of a child and care of an immediate family member with a serious health condition. The FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees that work at a location or within 75 miles of that location. To qualify for leave under the FMLA, the employee must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months prior to the requested leave and for at least 1,250 hours within the 12-month period prior to the requested leave.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The FLSA was originally enacted in 1938 to set minimum wage and overtime requirements and regulate child labor. It has been amended several times. One important amendment to the FLSA was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits wage discrimination based on sex by requiring equal pay for men and women doing equal work. Today, the FLSA covers four main areas: minimum wages, overtime compensation, sex-based wage discrimination and child labor.

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed by President Obama on January 29, 2009. The Act supersedes the US Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., and provides that each individual paycheck that gives discriminatory compensation is a separate wrong actionable under federal law. Under the Act, an individual affected by wage discrimination may file a charge within 180 (or 300 in certain circumstances) days of the adoption of a discriminatory compensation decision; the individual’s becoming subject to a discriminatory compensation decision; or the individual’s compensation being affected by the application of a discriminatory compensation decision, including each time the individual is paid wages or compensation that are based on a discriminatory decision.

Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA)

OSHA applies to all private sector employers in the US and its principal territories. The term “employer” is broadly defined to mean “any person engaged in a business affecting commerce.” 29 U.S.C. §652(5). Employers must provide employees with a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, and must comply with health and safety standards promulgated under OSHA. Employees have the right to question unsafe conditions and request a federal inspection; assist OSHA inspectors; bring an action to compel the Secretary of Labor to seek injunctive relief in cases that involve imminent danger to employees; and gain access to information about health records and exposure to dangerous substances. The Secretary of Labor is charged with developing health and safety standards and enforcing those standards by performing physical inspections and issuing citations requiring unsafe practices to cease, the payment of civil penalties or both.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants on the basis of race. Employers cannot base employment decisions on race, color or national origin; birthplace or culture; ancestry; linguistic characteristics; or surname associated with a specific national origin. In addition, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amendment to Title VII, pregnant women are protected from discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions. The Act forbids employers from discriminating against pregnant employees in hiring and the provision of leave, benefits or other employment conditions.

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