With the dawn of the industrial age, laborers—like the machines and tools they wielded—became just another tool of production. That’s why between the 18th and 19th centuries, employers could treat workers however they wished with few legal consequences.
Luckily, workplace conditions have improved significantly thanks to federal employment laws that protect workers’ rights. Below are some of the most important ones:
Fair labor standards
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 has several provisions that ensure reasonable working conditions. These include paying a minimum wage, providing overtime pay, protecting minors against child labor, and giving guidelines on how rendered work hours are counted. While the FLSA does not dictate the number of hours to be worked per day, it is largely credited with instituting the eight-hour workday because it limits the workweek to 40 hours, beyond which overtime rates will apply. Hence, most employees now work Monday to Friday, rendering eight-hour shifts per day.
All citizens have the right to work regardless of their race or creed, and this is enshrined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This law makes it illegal for businesses to refuse to hire a person because of their ethnicity, religion, sex, or nationality. It also protects workers from being unfairly discharged or discriminated against because of the aforementioned characteristics. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) further bolsters these rights by protecting workers over the age of 40.
Unpaid leaves and job security
Dealing with a major illness is stressful enough as it is without having to worry about having a job to return to. Luckily, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 lets you keep your job and health insurance even if you have to take an extended leave. This law lets you take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to give birth and care for your newborn, to recover from a serious health condition, or to take care of a spouse or child who is gravely ill.
The federal minimum wage became law in 1938 during the waning years of the Great Depression. It was part of the broader National Industrial Recovery Act first signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, which aimed to help the economy emerge from the biggest recession of the 20th century. During this period, companies were free to pay employees as they pleased, leading to sweatshops where workers earned barely enough to sustain themselves. Imposing a minimum wage sought to stop such unscrupulous practices. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been set at $7.25 per hour, but there are talks of bumping it up to $15 an hour nationwide. In California, that rate recently went up to $14 an hour and is set to increase to $15 next year.
Safe working environment
Safe and comfortable workplaces are par for the course today, but that wasn’t always the case. Before the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971, about 14,000 workers a year perished on the job; that number has been slashed to just 4,300 by 2009. Work-related injuries and illnesses also dropped precipitously, from 11 cases per 100 workers in 1972 to roughly four cases per 100 workers in 2009. These results were achieved through the creation of strict safety and health standards for all workplaces, especially for inherently high-risk sectors such as the construction and maritime industries.
The newest federal employee benefit has become especially relevant given the current pandemic. Passed into law in 2010, the Affordable Care Act makes medical coverage a right for all employees, including those working in medium-sized businesses. If your company has 50 or more employees who render at least 30 hours of work each week, it must offer health coverage that meets the law’s minimum value and affordability standards. Failure to do so will result in paying a substantial penalty.
The Social Security Act of 1935 provides a safety net for when employees can no longer work due to age or disability. On average, you can receive about $1,500 in social security benefits a month upon retirement, though the maximum amount retirees can receive is around $3,100. The law requires you to contribute 6.2% of your earnings, which your employer must then match. In essence, today’s workers and employers generate the funds that support individuals who eventually exit the workforce.
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