There was a time when workers were at the mercy of their employers regarding 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 labor protection laws that millions of Americans rely on today. 

These days the U.S. 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. Here are eight key federal protections afforded employees.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Department of Labor enforces roughly 180 federal labor laws.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act established a federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25 an hour, though individual states may have set a higher amount.
  • Workplace safety laws are enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
  • Social Security benefits are funded by a payroll tax on employees and employers.
  • Unemployment insurance benefits are offered through a joint federal-state program.

1. The Minimum Wage

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) 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 nonexempt workers' rights to receive time-and-a-half for any overtime they perform.

The law offers special protections for minors as well. For nonagricultural positions, it limits the number of hours that children under age 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 several specific safety provisions, including industry-specific guidelines for construction, maritime, and agricultural jobs. The act also includes a “General Duty Clause” that prohibits any workplace practice representing a clear risk to workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the primary responsibility for enforcing the law, although state agencies may also have a role in implementing certain provisions. Though the protections affect most employees, self-employed individuals and those working on small family farms, among others, are exempted from the law.

On September 9, 2021, President Joe Biden asked OSHA to draft an emergency temporary standard that mandates businesses with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations against COVID-19 or face weekly testing, and that businesses offer employees paid time off to get vaccinated.

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-size 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. As of July 2021 (the most recent figures available as of early September), about 55.6 million people received Social Security checks each month, with an average amount of $1,543 for retirees and $1,277 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. Self-employed individuals bear the full cost of the tax, kicking in 12.4% of their income; half of the payment is tax-deductible.

5. Unemployment Benefits

Even though each state has its unemployment insurance agency, jobless benefits are offered through a joint federal-state program. States manage payments to the unemployed but have to meet specific federal guidelines regarding 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 can receive benefits for up to 26 weeks, although payments are sometimes extended during periods of economic turmoil.

Though 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. 

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan extends federal unemployment benefits of $300 per week through Sept. 6, 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

6. Whistleblower Protections

A patchwork of federal statutes helps protect whistleblowers who report their employer for violations of the law. Whistleblower protections are often built into other pieces of legislation that govern an industry. For example, the Clean Air Act safeguards those who highlight environmental law violations, 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.

Workers have the right to make a whistleblower complaint if their workplace is unsafe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. Family Leave

President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (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 cases of 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 labor 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 (ADA).

The Bottom Line

Today, American employees enjoy numerous legal protections designed to provide a minimum income level and shield them from danger in the workplace, among other safeguards.