Employment Law For Businesses

Until about a hundred years ago, there were few laws governing the employment relationship. The employer was free to offer any terms or conditions of employment it wished, and an employee was free to leave if he or she desired.  This situation was, by and large, better for the employer than the employee, as the employer usually had more leverage to protect its position. 

With the growth of labor unions in the early 20th century, the federal government took an increased role in regulating the workplace, enacting minimum wage and overtime requirements and mandating safety standards. By the 1960s, the federal government and many states had made discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, religion and age illegal, and by the early 1990s, most workers who were disabled or needed medical leave gained additional protections. 

Today a network of laws and regulations at the state and federal level govern the employer-employee relationship. Employers small and large have a vested interest in understanding employment laws and how they affect them at all levels of running their business. 

Employers would be wise to seek legal assistance from law firms specializing in employment law not only when facing legal action, but also in developing their companies’ policies and procedures. In employment situations, often the best defense is a good offense, in which potential problems are planned for, discovered and resolved before igniting.  See the frequently asked section for answers to some of the more common issues that arise in the employment law field.

The better the understanding employers have of these laws, the better it can limit the potential for lawsuits and workplace violations. For more information, contact Thomas R. Thompson at (850)386-5777. 

Here are some of the laws and terms which may apply to an employer and which employers should be aware of: 

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a federal law that protects employees age 40 or older from employment discrimination on the basis of their age. Government entities and private employers with more than 20 employees are required to comply with the ADEA. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against any qualified disabled employee or applicant who could, with or without a reasonable accommodation, perform a job. The ADA also requires an employer to provide accommodation, such as modified work hours or duties or special equipment, if such an accommodation is documented as necessary to help the disabled employee perform his or her job and is not unduly burdensome for the employer to provide. 

At-will employment is a term that defines the employment relationship for many employees in most states. In an “at-will” employment relationship, either the employer or the employee may terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all, just so long as the reason is not illegal or otherwise prohibited by law. An employee may quit at any time for any reason and an employer may terminate an employee for a good reason, bad reason or no reason.  Without an express or implied agreement of employment, employees usually are considered at-will. 

Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is a federal law that requires employers to of a certain size to provide employees the opportunity to continue their health insurance coverage after events such as termination of employment, reduction in hours, legal separation or divorce, eligibility for Medicare coverage or loss of dependent status. 

Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) governs how private employers must manage employee benefit plans, such as pension funds, health insurance and disability benefits. ERISA sets certain limitations on the way the funds in such plans may be invested and prohibits an employer or plan administrator from wrongly refusing to provide plan benefits, such as refusing to pay disability benefits to a plan participant who qualifies for payment of the benefits. 

Employment contracts include written agreements signed by the employer and employee, as well as implied contracts created by employee handbook terms or verbal agreements. An employment contract can govern the length of employment, vacation, benefits and stock ownership, circumstances under which the employee may be fired, and whether the employee may compete with the employer after he or she has left the job.  These may include the agreement not to complete with an employer’s business under certain circumstances. 

Employment discrimination is prohibited by federal law, and by similar laws enacted by most states. Discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, gender, age, disability, and religion is illegal under federal law as is retaliation for exercising one’s rights under these laws. Some states, cities, or counties also include other protected classes of individuals, barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and other grounds. Harassment on the basis of membership in one of these protected categories is a form of discrimination. 

Equal Pay Act (EPA) is a federal law that requires employers to pay male and female employees the same wage for work that requires equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions. Employers still may pay different wages to male and female employees for legal reasons, such as merit or seniority. 

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that requires covered employers to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain purposes, such as the birth or adoption of a child, or to take care of the employee’s own or family member’s serious illness. Employers generally are required to reinstate employees who use FMLA time to their original position or an equivalent one. 

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law that sets minimum wage and overtime compensation standards as well as standards for child labor for employers and employees covered under the Act. The law makes a distinction between “exempt” and “non-exempt” employees, and employers may not be required to pay overtime and/or minimum wage to all classes of employees. 

Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that protects confidential medical information belonging to all individuals. In the employment context, HIPAA means your employer may not have access to an employee’s confidential medical information unless it is necessary for the business (i.e., such as a drug-screening test to ensure workplace safety, or you submit medical certification to your human resources department to confirm your eligibility for FMLA leave). 

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires every employer to provide a workplace that is free of dangers that could physically harm an employee. The law covers everything from dangerous equipment to long-term exposure to pollutants or radiation. Employers may be subject to inspections by OSHA investigators. Employees may report violations to OSHA directly or OSHA may decide to conduct a workplace inspection of its own volition. 

Retaliation occurs when an employer takes adverse employment action against an employee for exercising some legal right, such as filing a discrimination claim against the employer. Retaliation is prohibited by state and federal antidiscrimination and other employment laws. 

Sexual harassment is a form of gender-based discrimination that is barred by federal and state law. Sexual harassment may involve a hostile work environment, where the behavior of one’s co-workers creates an environment so bad that the victim of the harassment cannot carry on their job duties. Some examples of behavior that could create a hostile work environment include offensive language or jokes, inappropriate pictures, unwelcome touching directed at an employee. Sexual harassment also may occur when a supervisor requests sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits, such as a raise or promotion, and threatens the employee with adverse employment action for refusing the favor. 

Title VII is part of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who make a discrimination claim against an employer, participate in an internal discrimination investigation or take part in a legal proceeding against the employer, regardless of whether or not the employer is later found innocent of the charge. 

Whistleblower laws prevent employers from retaliating against employees for reporting employer illegal actions to an appropriate state or federal agency. Whistleblower provisions are included in a number of federal statutes as well as state laws. Some states require the employee to have actual knowledge of the employer’s wrongdoing while others only require the employee have a good faith belief the employer has violated the law.

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