What Is Labor Law?
Employers’ and employees’ rights and responsibilities at work
on August 31, 2020
Updated on January 31, 2023
Federal and state labor laws outline the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees across the United States. Whether you are an employer or an employee, it is critical to learn more about the federal labor laws that govern your workplace and how employers and employees have rights and responsibilities under these laws.
Many people assume that labor law and employment law are the same, but it is important to recognize that these are distinct areas of the law. As such, when a labor law issue arises, you should have a labor law attorney on your side who has experience handling workplace safety cases similar to your own.
From cases involving union activity, occupational safety, health care, and federal union laws to legal issues concerning labor conditions, a firm can assist you.
What Is Labor Law?
There are two general legal areas involving labor law.
First, labor law always concerns labor unions, unionized employees, and labor organizations.
This area of law is regulated by:
- State and federal government laws
- State and federal court decisions (including the U.S. Supreme Court)
- Administrative decisions
State laws can vary depending on the jurisdiction, but the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) creates a national standard for union membership and collective bargaining. Appropriately, the NLRA is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This federal agency has the power to enforce employees’ rights to organize and their ability to be represented by a union.
When workers are members of unions, they have certain rights and responsibilities, as well as certain options for negotiating issues pertaining to their:
- Working conditions
- Employee benefits
- Employment contracts
- Working hours
When an employer has unionized workers in a work environment, it is essential for the employer to understand how any employment agreements or disputes (including workers’ compensation) must be negotiated through the NLRA.
Wage and Working Conditions
Second, labor law is also a term used to define federal government and state labor standards for the workplace. Generally speaking, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law that governs most legal issues pertaining to working conditions, wage and hour issues, and minimum wage.
Other agencies regulate various facets of this legal area. For example:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces whistleblower protections
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) safeguards against employment discrimination (employees and job applicants) under federal law, including:
- The Department of Labor (DOL) enforces federal minimum wage standards
State governments also have their own minimum wage, equal pay, and overtime pay laws, so it is best to consult with an attorney with significant experience in and around your location.
What Is a Labor Law Attorney?
A labor law attorney can represent employers or employees in cases pertaining to labor union issues and disputes or in cases related to labor conditions and claims.
Many labor law attorneys will specifically represent employers, while others may primarily represent unions or employees. In some cases, labor law attorneys have experience representing clients on both sides of these cases.
Depending upon the specific legal issue, it may be unlikely that an individual employee would hire a labor law attorney—especially in cases involving unions. When employees are part of unions, the union is tasked with negotiating on behalf of the employees and advocating for employees in certain capacities.
Accordingly, if a labor law issue involving unionized employees arises, a labor lawyer would likely be representing either the business that has employed unionized workers or the union itself. However, in labor law issues concerning wage and hour violations, or violations of child labor laws, it is more likely that an individual employee could seek representation from a labor law attorney.
What Is a Labor Union?
Labor unions are organizations made up of workers that engage in bargaining, negotiations, or arbitration with employers on behalf of the employees who are members.
Unions can negotiate employee pay, benefits, workplace conditions, procedures for filing a workplace complaint, procedures or requirements for hiring or terminating workers, and taking action in the event of unfair or unlawful labor practices.
Depending upon where you work, you may be required to pay union dues. However, states with “right to work” laws make clear that employees cannot be required to join unions in order to work for a certain employer. Additionally, public sector employees are not required to pay or join a union.
Learning More About the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
The Fair Labor Standards Act is a federal law that “establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments.” The FLSA requires all of the following:
- Minimum wage of at least $7.25 per hour (although many states require a higher minimum wage, which we will explain below);
- Overtime pay of at least one and a half times the regular rate of pay once an employee works hours beyond 40 hours in a workweek;
- Employers must display a poster for employees to see that outlines FLSA laws;
- Employers must engage in recordkeeping, which includes keeping records of employee time worked and employee pay; and
- Limitations on child labor, including types and hours for minors.
Employers and employees in all U.S. states have rights and responsibilities under the FLSA. However, many states provide greater protections for employees than the FLSA does.
The FLSA does not require meal or break periods. However, it has regulations on these “rest” periods if employers do provide them. The FLSA does not require paid sick leave. The FLSA also does not require employers to provide vacations or holidays, and it does not have any specific requirements for part-time employees.
However, many states do have laws that require rest periods or vacation and holiday pay, that consider part-time employee rights and responsibilities, and other issues that the FLSA does not regulate. Both employers and employees should understand how the FLSA applies to them. They should also be familiar with state-specific laws concerning labor conditions.
Filing a Federal or State Labor Law Claim
Employers and employees should know that labor laws often involve state laws in addition to federal laws. As the U.S. Department of Labor explains, states across the country have enacted state-specific labor legislation. Many states have laws concerning minimum wage and minimum paid rest and meal periods that give employees more rights than the FLSA.
Many state wage and hour laws look similar to the FLSA but may have additional employee protections or benefits. In particular, many states go above the federal minimum wage, and it is critical for employers to know that they must abide by state laws that provide more benefits than federal laws in most situations. To be clear, when states provide more labor condition protections for workers, the employer cannot choose between state and federal law—state law will typically apply.
Just as states have specific wage and hour laws, many states also have state-specific labor relations laws similar to the NLRA. These laws guarantee employee rights concerning unionizing, collective bargaining, and strikes. Many state-specific labor relations laws also prohibit certain labor practices by employers.
If you are an employee and you have concerns about your rights or responsibilities under federal or state law, or if you are wondering about your eligibility to file a claim, you should speak with a labor law attorney about your options for filing a federal or state claim. When employers face a lawsuit from an employee or need more information about state-specific labor and union laws to remain in compliance, it is essential to seek advice from a labor law attorney.
Contact a National Labor Law Attorney Today
If you have questions about a labor law issue, you should not hesitate to get in touch with an experienced national labor law attorney. One of the lawyers at our firm can discuss your specific labor law issue with you today. Whether you have questions about or need assistance with a claim under the NLRA or the FLSA, or you need assistance with a state-specific labor law issue, one of our labor and employment law attorneys can assist you.
A labor law attorney can represent employers or employees in cases pertaining to labor union issues and disputes, or in cases related to labor conditions and claims. Many labor law attorneys will specifically represent employers, while others may primarily represent unions or employees. In some cases, labor law attorneys have experience representing clients in both sides of these cases.