What is Employment Law
What is employment law?
The broad umbrella of “Employment Law” covers the legal aspects of the relationship between an employer and its current, prospective and former employees. While not every conceivable action is going to be covered, both federal and state laws control various aspects of the employer-employee relationship, including each side's rights and obligations. Are wages being calculated correctly? The answer is found in employment law. What should be done about a complaint of harassment in the workplace? The answer is found in employment law. Questions such as what sorts of notices should be posted in the workplace and what should you put in personnel policies are all answered with employment law.
In my experience, the employment relationship is one of the three most important relationships in a person’s life. Because of the complexity and importance of the employment relationship, this area of law is constantly evolving. Whether you are an employee or an employer, this is a relationship of critical importance.
What can you tell me about employment law?
In Tennessee, there are basically four types of employment relationships.
1. Employment relationships can be based on a contract;
2. Employment relationships can be "at-will;” or
3. The employment relationship can be with a governmental entity such as a local, state or federal government agency.
Yes, I only listed three, because within the realm of contractual employment relationships there can be two types:
1.a. Individual contracts such as higher level executives and sports figures enjoy; and
1.b. Collectively bargained relationships.
The least common type of employment relationship is that governed by an individual contract. The individual contract will generally establish all of the rights between the parties and will serve to supplement (not supplant) every other employment law. Some of the rights that are typically established by an employment contract include rate of pay, bonus structure, duties, limitations on work and the termination of the employment relationship. Because this creates rights in addition to federal and state laws, it is very important to understand the scope of any sort of agreement. Because of this, getting a lawyer involved in the negotiation and drafting of the agreement is extremely important.
The next type of employment relationships are those governed by collectively bargained agreements or memorandums of understanding. These only occur in a setting where there is a union involved and are also pretty rare in Tennessee. Typically, the employee does not have what are known as individual rights under these sorts of agreements, but they do have collective rights. In this area, most often both the employer and labor union have lawyers involved in the negotiation of the agreement. Most often these agreements provide rights which supplement other employment laws, the most significant of which is the limitation on the employer’s right to terminate an employee only for just cause. Other significant variations with this type of employment from the other types are that disputes are resolved by an arbitrator instead of in a courtroom and the union is responsible for arguing the employee’s side instead of the employee hiring a private attorney. Employees typically only need to get a lawyer involved to ensure that the union is abiding by their duty of fair representation.
Employment with a governmental entity has its own special set of rules which also supplement typical labor and employment laws. Usually, these laws deal with notice for termination and occasionally what are known as “civil service” rights. An employee does not have union protection in this environment and usually needs to get a lawyer involved in situations where there is an adverse job action.
The final type of employment in Tennessee is also the most common – “at-will” employment. In the at-will employment relationship, the employment relationship is at the will of each of the parties. This means that it can be terminated by either party (employer or employee) for any reason at all – even one that is morally wrong. The only limitations on this relationship in Tennessee are those found in federal, state and some local laws. There are no contractual rights, there is no labor union involved and the additional rights which government employees have are all absent. Even though there are fewer rights, there are some important laws which regulate this relationship.
Federal Regulations on Employment Relationships
Numerous federal laws apply to employment nationwide. Some laws affect only employers over a certain size, while others have different restrictions. The following is a quick summary of the major federal employment laws:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended:
- Applies only to employers with 15 or more employees
- Prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in the "terms or conditions" of an individual's employment
- Prohibits employers from harassing individuals based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This includes sexual harassment.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
- Applies only to employers with 15 or more employees
- Defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- Is designed to prohibit discrimination against workers with disabilities
- Provides that if an individual with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job, with reasonable accommodation, that person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of the disability
- Mandates that employers engage in an interactive process to determine if an employee requires a “reasonable accommodation” and the nature of that accommodation
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA):
- Applies only to employers with 20 or more employees
- Applies only to employees who are 40 years old or older
- Prevents employers from giving preferential treatment to younger workers to the exclusion of older workers when it comes to hiring, pay, benefits such as health insurance, job assignments and promotions
- Does not prevent an employer from favoring older employees over younger employees
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):
- Applies to businesses that gross $500,000 or more per year and to other specific types of businesses
- Applies to employees who work in interstate commerce (almost everybody)
- Provides that qualified employees who work more than 40 hours in a week should receive time-and-a-half pay for the overtime
- Does not provide regulation as to the number and duration of breaks an employer must allow, but individual states may (such as Tennessee)
- Specifies minimum wage requirements
- Contains specific exceptions to the general rules and imposes some strict recordkeeping requirements
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):
- Applies only to employers with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the workplace
- Applies only to employees who have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave
- Provides that employers must allow employees to take up to a 12-week unpaid leave of absence for qualified family and medical reasons
- Preserves qualified employees' positions for the duration of the leave and provides employees with a right to be reinstated to their former position upon return from leave
- Generally requires that employers maintain group health insurance for the period of the leave
- Employees generally cannot be punished or demoted for taking valid FMLA leave
Additional laws which affect the workplace
In some states, employees have a right to privacy in the workplace. This right to privacy can include one's personal possessions, including handbags or briefcases, and storage lockers accessible only by employees. Employees also may have a right to privacy in their personal telephone conversations. In general, in Tennessee, employees have very little privacy or right to privacy in anything they bring into the workplace, in their messages on company e-mail and their Internet usage on the employer's computer system.
There are certain pieces of information that an employer may not seek out concerning a potential applicant or an employee. An employer may not conduct a credit or background check of an employee or a prospective employee unless the employer notifies the employee or applicant in writing that it intends to do so and receives authorization to do so.
In addition, most private employers may not require an employee or a prospective employee to submit to a polygraph (lie-detector test). There are very narrow exceptions to this rule if the employee is suspected of being involved in an incident that caused economic loss or injury to the employer or if the employee is being considered to drive an armored car, work for a security company, work with controlled substances or work in national security.
It is important for both employers and employees to be aware of their legal rights and the duties they owe to each other. In many instances, a consultation with a lawyer can help to determine if the employer or the employee is on the right path. If you have questions about your rights or obligations, get in touch with an experienced employment law attorney at Becker Law Firm in Memphis, Tennessee, to ensure that your rights are protected.
Copyright ©2011, James R. Becker, Jr.
DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.