What is Employment Law?

What employees and employers need to know about the federal guidelines

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 22, 2023

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When you are seeking employment or you are a business that hires employees, it is critical to understand how employment laws apply to you.

Employment law is a broad area of the law that concerns employee rights and responsibilities in the workplace, and employer rights and responsibilities with regard to hiring and employing workers.

Whether you are an employee who has questions about your rights and responsibilities in the workplace, or you are an employer who needs more information about ensuring that you are in compliance with federal and state employment laws, it is important to seek advice from an experienced employment and labor lawyer as soon as possible.

What is Employment Law?

Employment law is an area of legal practice concerning all aspects of the employee-employer relationship, including the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of all parties involved in the employee-employer relationship. There are many different types of employment laws, including those that govern, for example:

  • Discrimination in the workplace, including in the hiring process;
  • Disability accommodations;
  • Workplace safety;
  • Wage and hour law requirements;
  • Job-protected workplace leave;
  • Whistleblower laws and protections;
  • Employment agreements and restrictive covenants; and
  • Protections against retaliation for exercising rights.

Both federal and state employment laws exist.

Federal employment laws are applicable to employee-employer relationships in all U.S. states, but employers or employees must be “covered” by federal laws in order for them to apply specifically. Generally speaking, whether or not an employee-employer relationship is covered by a federal employment law will depend upon the size and type of the workplace.

State employment laws often cover more workplaces than federal laws, but they are state-specific. Depending upon the state, some state employment laws provide more employee protections than federal laws provide. It is important to seek particular advice about the distinctions between federal and state employment laws.

What is an Employment Law Attorney?

An employment law attorney can represent employees or employers in the types of employment law cases described above.

While many employment law attorneys will focus either on representing employees who are filing claims because their rights have been violated or on representing employers who must defend against an employment law complaint, some employment law attorneys handle cases from both sides.

An employee will typically hire an employment law attorney when that employee believes their rights have been violated.

An employment law attorney can help that employee to determine whether to file a claim under federal or state law, assist the employee with filing the claim (either with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with a state agency that enforces state employment laws), and represent the employee throughout the claims process.

An employer will usually hire an employment law attorney either when that employer is facing a claim from an employee, or when the employer needs assistance ensuring that the business is in compliance with federal and state employment laws.

Equal Opportunity Laws

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that are designed to ensure that all employees have equal access to employment opportunities and rights in their workplaces. Those federal equal opportunity laws include the following:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, and prohibits retaliation against an employee who exercises his or her rights under Title VII. Under Title VII, sex discrimination includes sexual harassment in the workplace, and thus it provides protections against both quid pro quo sexual harassment and sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment.
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Amendment to Title VII, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against a woman as a result of pregnancy, childbirth, or any medical condition that is related to pregnancy or childbirth. This law also prohibits retaliation against an employee who exercises rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA). Makes it unlawful to pay different wages to men and women who perform equal work in the same workplace, and prohibits retaliation.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Provides protections against age-related discrimination to employees aged 40 or older, and prohibits retaliation against employees for exercising rights under the ADEA.
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability, and protects against retaliation.
  • Sections 102 and 103 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Amends Title VII and the ADA so that complainants can have jury trials, and can be entitled to both compensatory and punitive damages where there is intentional discrimination.
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Prohibits retaliation against a disabled employee in the federal government, and prohibits retaliation because an employee exercised rights against disability discrimination.
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). Makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of that person’s genetic information or the genetic information of a person’s family members. This law also prohibits retaliation.

As you will see, most of the laws described above also provide protections against retaliation.

Generally speaking, all of these laws protect employees from retaliation (which can include almost any adverse action taken by the employer, from termination and demotion to unfavorable job assignment or duties to denial of certain benefits).

Most employees are protected from retaliation if they exercise their rights under one of these federal laws, or if they participate in an investigation concerning a complaint that arises under one of the laws listed above.

Federal Employment Laws

Federal employment laws include all of the federal laws prohibiting discrimination against employees that are described above.

In addition to those equal opportunity laws, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) administers and enforces more than 180 different laws that may be applicable to employees or employers outside the laws enforced by the EEOC.

The following are examples of the additional federal employment laws administered or enforced by the DOL that employees and employers should be aware of, and for which they should understand their rights and responsibilities:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This is a major federal employment law that governs wages and overtime pay for employees, and covers nearly all private and public employers and employees.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave if the employee takes leave in order to take care of his or her own serious health condition, to provide care for a newborn baby or newly adopted or foster child, or to provide care for a family members with a serious illness.
  • Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Regulates safety and health standards in the workplace, and requires employers to comply with safety and health rules created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
  • Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). Provides workers’ compensation benefits to certain types of maritime employees.
  • Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). Provides workers’ compensation benefits to certain Department of Energy employees or contractors who have been exposed to harmful substances.
  • Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA). Provides workers’ compensation benefits to federal employees who are injured on the job.
  • Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA). Provides medical and wage benefits to coal miners who are disabled due to pneumoconiosis (also known as “black lung disease”).
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Regulates employers who offer certain pensions or benefits to employees.
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Provides certain employment and reemployment protections to members of the armed forces.
  • Employee Polygraph Protection Act. Prohibits most employees from using lie detector tests on employees.
  • Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). Regulates employee wage garnishment.
  • Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA). Regulates hiring and employment of agricultural and farm employers who use migrant and seasonal workers.
  • Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA). Protects workers who report workplace violations of the law, workplaces that pose a public health or safety hazard, and workplaces that engage in gross mismanagement.
  • Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). Requires certain employees to be provided with notice about impending layoffs or the closure of a plant where they work.

There may be additional federal employment laws that are applicable to you or your business. It is critical to seek advice from an employment law attorney about your rights and responsibilities under the variety of federal employment laws that are currently in effect.

Contact a National Employment Law Attorney for Assistance

Employment law is a complex area of the law that can significantly impact the ability of an employee to perform duties in a safe workplace that is free from discrimination, and the ability of an employer to manage and run a business.

Both employees and employers alike should understand their rights, responsibilities, and obligations under federal and state employment laws.

If you have questions or require representation for an employment law violation, you should get in touch with an experienced employment law attorney as quickly as possible.

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