Home Blog The "Alphabet Soup" of Employment Law and HR: Understanding the Basics and Staying Compliant

The "Alphabet Soup" of Employment Law and HR: Understanding the Basics and Staying Compliant

January 08, 2024
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Labor and employment law structures the limits and possibilities of the workplace, and thus affects everyone within them. In organizations subject to the diversity of labor and employment laws in the United States, these laws dictate mandatory employer protections that guide workplace practices. They provide essential protections to workers in a variety of areas related to sexual harassment, discriminatory practices, and fair and equitable wages.

At the helm of all of these considerations are human resources professionals. Human resource management requires in-depth knowledge of employment law to ensure compliance, safety, equity, and prosperity. Understanding the law (and navigating all of its various acronyms), is fundamental to maintaining a safe and supportive workplace.

Having a sophisticated understanding of employment law can give you an edge in the human resources market, as you bring a coveted skillset to future employers. An advanced degree such as a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor & Employment Law (MJ-LEL) can help you stand out from other HR professionals and provide much-needed value.

Continue reading for more information on various employment laws and why it's essential for anyone working in employee relations or human resources to understand and implement them.

Understanding Employment Law Basics

For a successful work environment, HR managers have to know what laws shape their workplace. They must employ this knowledge to strike a fair balance between employer and employee protection and avocation.1 To accomplish this, understanding federal statutes that regulate the employer-employee relationship is key.

Some of the laws and regulations that HR professionals have to know are:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (EEO)
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)
  • Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA)
  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN)
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
  • Equal Pay Act (EPA)
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA)

Employment Discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)

HR managers play a crucial role in preventing discrimination prohibited by laws like Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, national origin, and other bases, employees working at a company must not face workplace discrimination.2 The prohibition against sex discrimination also protects individuals from sexual harassment, whether it comes in the form of a hostile work environment or quid pro quo.

Under the ADA, employers are also prohibited from discriminating against individuals who have a disability or who are perceived as disabled. The ADEA is another federal statute that addresses discrimination, including that they may not discriminate against individuals over 40 years of age on the basis of age.3

The enforcement of Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA is the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal government agency.4 However, those in human resources must be able to recognize, report, and correctly manage any violations of these laws.

Accommodating Employees in the Workplace

Accommodation issues in the workplace are an emerging challenge for employers. Companies must address the complexity of accommodations required by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), and the ADA. The PDA and the PWFA are two interlocking statutes that amend Title VII to ensure employees from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. These statutes together require employers to provide accommodations for pregnant employees who may be limited in their ability to fulfill job obligations in the workplace. The ADA also requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with a disability in the workplace, unless those accommodations would impose an undue burden on the employer.5

Another area of antidiscrimination law that will increasingly require accommodations emerges in the realm of religious discrimination. Employers must provide accommodations for employees seeking to practice their religion unless those accommodations would result in a substantial cost for the employer.6

Hiring and Recruiting Practices

The human resource manager also has to follow laws when it comes to recruiting and hiring. This includes following EEO practices in all phases of the hiring process, including job advertisements, applicant screening, background and reference checks, and pre-employment testing and interviewing.

Wage and Hour Laws

State and federal laws set rules that companies must follow about wages, hours of work, and who can work. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits child labor in most circumstances and sets limitations on how and when minors can work. The statute also sets a floor for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for most workers, and $2.13 an hour for tipped employees.7

Another essential aspect of the FLSA involves addressing overtime protections. Although there is no ceiling for maximum hours worked in the United States, non-exempt hourly employees must receive overtime pay for hours worked over 40 hours a week. It also creates exemptions to the overtime pay laws for some kinds of salaried employees who do particular kinds of work.7

Laws against child labor are well established, and the FLSA ensures that minors are being protected from jobs that are detrimental to their health and development.7

With all of this in mind, HR professionals must be deeply familiar with the details on minimum wage requirements, overtime pay, exemptions, and how employers can keep track of these details to ensure compliance with the FLSA.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

FMLA rights and protections include unpaid leave for specific family and medical reasons, such as the birth of a child, a serious health condition, or taking care of a family member with a serious health condition. Under FMLA, a person's health insurance coverage continues while they take their leave.8

HR professionals are the point people for when workers want to take an intermittent leave and the process for returning to work. Thus, they need to understand the details of employee eligibility and covered leave reasons so they can advise employees on how, and for how long, to take unpaid leave. HR managers also have to advise the company on employer obligations and notice requirements from the employee, such as how much time they have to give the employer to approve a leave request.

Workplace Safety and Occupational Health

Regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are another set of guidelines that every HR professional must navigate. OSHA protects employees from an unsafe or unhealthy work environment. OSHA regulations cover employment issues across industries, so company regulations typically include ways to identify and prevent workplace hazards, and a way for employees to report safety concerns.9

Performance Management and Termination

If there are challenges with members of the labor force, HR professionals ensure compliance when it comes to termination and firing. Since they are involved with performance evaluation, progressive discipline, and separation agreements, it is their job to protect both employers and employees from harmful actions such as wrongful termination.1

HR managers also work to manage the demands of notice required for reductions in force and layoffs as dictated by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). The WARN Act requires employee notice of 60 days when employers with more than 100 employers are planning a reduction in force.10

Employee Benefits and Compensation

Human resources management also helps ensure workers get the benefits they need in a fair and equitable manner. In terms of employee benefits and compensation, HR managers ensure compliance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and Equal Pay Act (EPA).

ERISA is administered by the federal government, in part by the Employee Benefits Security Administration, to take care of employee pension plans.11 The EPA is a federal statute that prohibits pay discrimination because of sex and requires equal pay for equal work. While employers may pay employees differently on the basis of seniority, productivity, a merit system, or some reason other than sex, employers may not compensate employees differently because of sex.12

For health insurance and benefits, many employees access health care through employer-paid health plans. Laws and regulations are in place to prevent discrimination based on race, gender, and other grounds, so these employee benefits must be distributed in a fair way as well.12

Employee Privacy and Confidentiality

The HR professional has to balance employee privacy rights and employer interests at all times, including data such as genetic information that might affect health care coverage.13 The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) bars employers from requesting or requiring employees to provide genetic information about themselves or their families, or from discriminating against them because of genetic information (e.g., disease).14 Employers might also require monitoring of employee communications and computer usage on the job, and it is the HR manager's role to protect personal information and data privacy for workers and companies.13

Managing State and Local Law

Beyond the “alphabet soup” of large federal statutes that shape employment law, HR professionals must know how state and local law can impact the workplace. These more localized laws may provide enhanced protections for employees in a variety of contexts. For example, minimum wage laws differ from state to state, and in some local cities and counties, there is a higher minimum wage that exceeds the federal rate of $7.25 per hour.

When it comes to anti-discrimination laws, some states offer more expansive protections than those in the federal law. The states of Michigan and New York City, for example, prohibit discrimination on the basis of weight.15 And in many states, like California and Massachusetts, employers are required to provide paid family leave. Some jurisdictions, like New York State, are even limiting how employers can test for cannabis.16

Human resource management also requires understanding a variety of legal frameworks that govern the nature of a person's employment. For example, contract law is a crucial element of employment law that is grounded in state law. As states and government agencies consider the viability of non-compete contracts, these changes are bound to impact employment contracts. And for employees without an employment contract, the question of whether a company is in a jurisdiction with robust at-will employment protections (or a jurisdiction like Montana that requires for-cause termination), can shape the employment relationship because it determines when a company can fire a person from their job and what job protection an employee retains.17

HR Compliance and Documentation

The day-to-day compliance with federal and state governments and employment laws is also the responsibility of the HR professional. They ensure internal documentation is in line with the law, specifically employee policies, HR recordkeeping, compliance audits, and internal controls, as well as training and education on HR issues.

Employment Law Challenges in the Digital Age

As the nature of work shifts, laws must still be followed. In addition to issues like wages and hours of work, new challenges include remote work, telecommuting, and the need for cybersecurity and data protection. Laws around the HR department's control of workers' social media and online presence are emerging and evolving, as is the status of gig economy workers and independent contractors.

Legal Considerations for HR Professionals

HR professionals balance important legal and ethical responsibilities to protect both the company and its workers. They typically work in-house but consult with outside professionals, such as legal counsel, about risk mitigation to ensure rights are acknowledged and protected.

To be an effective HR professional means staying up-to-date with employment law changes. Tulane Law’s online MJ-LEL program gives you the skills you need to fulfill this important role. It can give you the breadth of experience and knowledge to rise among the ranks of HR professionals, pushing forward to the next level of your career.

Schedule a call with our admissions team today to get started.

Sources
  1. Retrieved on September 29, 2023, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/human-resources-managers.htm#tab-2
  2. Retrieved on September 29, 2023, from https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/title-vii-civil-rights-act-1964
  3. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.archives.gov/eeo/laws
  4. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.eeoc.gov/overview
  5. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-pregnant-workers-fairness-act
  6. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/questions-and-answers-religious-discrimination-workplace
  7. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/flsa
  8. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fmla
  9. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs
  10. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ETA/Layoff/pdfs/_EmployerWARN2003.pdf
  11. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/retirement/erisa
  12. Retrieved on January 5, 2023, from https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/equal-pay-act-1963
  13. Retrieved on January 5, 2023, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/10/15/top-seven-obligations-concerning-employee-data-privacy/
  14. Retrieved on September 29, 2023 from https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/genetic-information-nondiscrimination-act-2008
  15. Retrieved on January 5, 2023, from https://www.foxrothschild.com/publications/new-york-city-enacts-law-prohibiting-height-and-weight-discrimination
  16. Retrieved on January 5, 2023, from https://www.health-street.net/state-laws/new-york-drug-testing-compliance/
  17. Retrieved on January 5, 2023, from https://leglobal.law/countries/usa/employment-law/employment-law-overview-usa/02-employment-contracts/