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Labor Standards in the U.S.: Must-Know Aspects

The United States has one of the most robust non-discriminatory labor standards in the world. In general, no American employee can be discriminated against based on their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, nation of origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Around 180 federal laws and a clutch of state and local laws ensure these rights of employees.

The primary laws that regulate employment in the U.S. are:

  • Section 1981 Civil Rights Act of 1866
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Equal Pay Act
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • National Labor Relations Act
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • Immigration Reform and Control Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Family and Medical Leave Act
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

Application of the laws based on employee strength

The Fair Labor Standards Act determines that minimum wage and record-keeping laws apply to all businesses, irrespective of the number of people they employ. So does the Immigration Reform and Control Act regulate an employee’s eligibility to work in the U.S., and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act forbid discrimination against veterans.

  • Up to 14 employees: The Occupational Safety and Health Act applies to organizations with 11 to 14 workers.
  • Up to 19 employees: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against disability, ethnicity, gender, religion, race, or national origin, applies to institutions with more than 14 employees. So does the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Furthermore, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which prohibits discrimination based on third-party credit rating agencies, also comes into force. These companies are also liable for ensuring all possible means to protect employee data through the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act.
  • Between 20 to 49 employees: Businesses with more than 20 workers are regulated by the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The former ensures group health insurance to employees, and the latter disallows mandatory retirement or discrimination against individuals 40 years and above.
  • Above 49 employees: The Family Medical Leave Act comes into effect in these companies. The act allows employees to take job-protected (but uncompensated) leave for family or medical reasons. The act also enables them to use employer-provided health insurance coverage.

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Types of employment

U.S. employees are generally categorized based on an employment contract, a collective bargaining agreement, or “at will”:

  • At-will employment: The employee or the employer can terminate the employment at-will at any time, as long as no laws are violated.
  • Employment contract:
    • Private sector
    • Public sector
  • Employee or independent contractor
  • Exempt or non-exempt employees from overtime pay

Are the employment contracts given in writing?

Not necessarily. Federal laws do not mandate this; however, some state or local laws may require it.

Terms of employment

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mandates payment of at least the federal minimum wage, as well as overtime as appropriate. Certain categories of employees can be paid overtime for work beyond 40-hours per week.

Protections against discrimination

Federal, state, and local laws protect against discrimination of all kinds. There are two kinds of harassment in the U.S., a hostile work environment and a quid pro quo.

You can approach the U.S. court of law if you believe you have been subjected to a hostile work environment or have been discriminated against.

A quid pro quo harassment is when someone exerts detrimental influence or makes a decision that can affect an employee’s employment based on the earlier-mentioned discriminations. The decisions can be about termination, promotion, etc.

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What if employee rights are violated?

Employees convinced of rights violations can approach the respective federal agencies for resolution. They can also file civil suits against the employer.

Filing a complaint

The mode of filing complaints differs between agencies. You should approach the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of:

  • Color
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Nation of origin
  • Disability or genetic information
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Age

You can also approach the Commission if the employer has denied you reasonable workplace accommodations due to your religious beliefs or disability. It is also the agency to go to if you face employer retaliation for reporting discrimination or for helping with an investigation or lawsuit.

If you believe that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not been able to resolve your issue, then you can file a lawsuit. Look for an attorney who specializes in employment law. Check the websites of the American Bar Association or the National Employment Lawyers Association.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees have certain rights and responsibilities. In case of violations of these, contact the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Wage and Hour Division should be approached for overtime pay complaints also. For occupational health and safety violations, approach the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to file a complaint.

If you get hurt or fall sick from your job in the private or public sectors, you should approach the concerned state department for workers’ compensation.

Time limits for filing a complaint

  • Within two years for Equal Pay Act claims; Family and Medical Leave Act claims; and minimum wage, overtime, and other wage and hour claims. The lawsuit should also be filed within this interval.
  • For health and safety and whistleblower claims, depending on the law that applies, the complaint should be filed between 30 to 180 days with OSHA.
  • Within 180 days in case of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Can any agency reject my claims?

In the absence of enough evidence, an agency can reject a claim. In such cases, the complainant can try for a lawsuit. However, the complainant can try for a lawsuit only after exhausting all administrative remedies.

For more on filing complaints, these websites can help:

Rights of H-1B, H-1B1, and E-3 visa holders

  • The immigrant worker should get a copy of the Labor Condition Application (LCA) form from the U.S. employer.
  • The foreign employee should be paid the higher of either the prevailing wage for the occupation in the area, or the wages as paid to other employees with similar experience and qualifications.
  • The non-resident employee should also be paid for the non-productive time caused by the employer or by the worker’s lack of license or permit.
  • The foreign employee has the right to the same fringe benefits offered to other employees in a business establishment.
  • No immigrant employee is required to pay a penalty for leaving employment before the agreed date. However, the employer can seek “liquidated charges”.
  • No employer of E3, H-1B, or H-1B1 workers may threaten, intimidate, discharge, blacklist, or discriminate in any manner for disclosing any visa violations or helping an official investigation against the employer.

For any related visa compliance violations, the employee should approach a local Wage and Hour Division office.

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For visitors, travel, student and other international travel medical insurance.

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