There was once a time when workers were at the mercy of their employers when it came to job-related safety and benefits, to say nothing of hiring and promotions. However, a push for employee rights gained momentum in the 20th century, resulting in a series of important laws that millions of Americans rely on to this day.
These days, the Department of Labor enforces roughly 180 worker protection laws, ranging from pay requirements to parental leave benefits. Other protections are supervised by agencies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Following, we explore eight key federal protections afforded employees.
1. The Minimum Wage
The Fair Labor Standards Act ensures that American workers receive a minimum wage for their work. Since 2009, most private and public employers have had to pay staff members at least $7.25 per hour, although some legislators have tried to increase that amount. In addition, the FLSA assures non-exempt workers' rights to receive time-and-a-half for any overtime they perform.
The law offers special protections for minors as well. For non-agricultural positions, it limits the number of hours that children under the age of 16 can work. Additionally, the FLSA prohibits businesses from hiring those under 18 for certain high-risk jobs.
2. Workplace Safety
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 went a long way toward minimizing dangers in the American workplace. The legislation created a number of specific safety provisions, including industry-specific guidelines for construction, maritime and agricultural jobs. It also includes a “General Duty Clause" that prohibits any workplace practice that represents a clear risk to workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has the primary responsibility for enforcing the law, although state agencies may also have a role in implementing certain provisions. While the protections affect most employees, self-employed individuals and those working on small family farms are among those exempted from the law.
3. Health Coverage
When it was first passed in 2010, the Affordable Care Act promised to make health insurance a right for workers at most medium- and large-sized businesses. The “Employer Shared Responsibility Payment” provision requires that companies with 50 or more full-time workers offer them a minimal level of health insurance – or pay a substantial penalty. To qualify as a “full-time” employee, an individual must work at least 30 hours a week on average.
4. Social Security
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, providing retired and disabled Americans with a financial safety net. In January 2020, about 64 million people receive Social Security checks each month, with an average amount of $1,505 for retirees and $1,257 for citizens with disabilities.
These benefits are funded by a payroll tax, which may appear as “OASDI” on your pay stub. Employers and employees each contribute an amount worth 6.2% of the staff member’s earnings, up to a maximum annual amount. However, self-employed individuals bear the full cost of the tax, kicking in 12.4% of their income.
5. Unemployment Benefits
Even though each state has its own unemployment insurance agency, jobless benefits are actually offered through a joint federal-state program. States manage payments to the unemployed but have to meet certain federal guidelines in terms of how they do so.
To qualify for payments, individuals must have been unemployed for reasons outside their control – for example, a layoff or firing – and meet state-specific requirements. In most cases, workers are eligible to receive benefits for up to 26 weeks, although payments are sometimes extended during periods of economic turmoil.
While not as generous as unemployment payments in some European countries, the U.S. unemployment system ensures that Americans have at least a few months of security when they temporarily leave the workforce.
6. Whistleblower Protections
A patchwork of federal statutes helps protect whistleblowers who report their employer for violations of the law. Often, whistleblower protections are built into other pieces of legislation that govern an industry. For example, the Clean Air Act safeguards those who highlight violations of environmental law and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act offers protection to those who uncover unlawful manufacturing policies.
OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program is the main body responsible for protecting the rights of employees, who may fear job loss or other reprisals if they speak up. Workers who feel they have suffered retribution for reporting company violations should file a complaint with their local OSHA office within 30 days of the incident.
7. Family Leave
President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, into law in 1993. As a result, eligible employees are afforded up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year if they decide to stay home in the wake of their child’s birth or adoption, or serious personal or family member illness.
To receive FMLA benefits, one must have been with the company for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours during the past year. The law only applies to businesses that employ at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.
8. Employment-Based Discrimination
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a watershed moment for social justice in America, especially when it came to employment. Title VII of the Act made it illegal for businesses to discriminate based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin." Some 45 years later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 further strengthened workplace rights, prohibiting wage discrimination against women and minorities.
On June 15, 2020, in a 6-3 ruling in Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court determined that protections against discrimination by sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect LGBTQ workers. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion, stated: “Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
Among other federal laws that protect against workplace inequality are the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which applies to workers 40 years and older, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA.
The Bottom Line
Today, American employees enjoy numerous legal protections designed to provide a minimal level of income and shield them from danger in the workplace, among other safeguards.