There was a time when the employment agreement between an employer and employee focused mainly on the intention of the parties. Over time, however, the employer-employee relationship has become heavily regulated and is subject to many important statutory and regulatory limitations.
Both the Federal and State governments have imposed numerous requirements upon employment. Some of these are applicable to all cases of employment, others apply only to employers of a certain size or in certain trades or industries. It is important to understand the scope of these laws, whether you are an employer or an employee, to make sure your rights and obligations are carefully preserved. Following is a brief overview of some of these important laws.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, declares it to be unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to terms of employment because of the individual's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Title VII is applicable to employers who have 15 or more employees. Title VII is closely tied administratively to numerous state anti-discrimination laws which generally apply without regard to the number of employees. Significant legal and equitable remedies are available, including lost pay, in situations where terms of these laws have been violated.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment against individuals with disabilities unless the discrimination meets certain statutory defenses. The law sets forth specific limitations as to what an employer may do from the pre-employment interview through actual employment. Generally, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employers of more than 20 employees from discriminating against individuals above the age of 40 in connection with any terms and conditions of employment. As with Title VII, significant damages may be awarded for violations.
The Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to permit eligible employees a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave due to child birth, adoption, a serious health condition, or to provide medical care for a close family member. During the leave, health benefits must be continued at the expense of the employer although it may be reimbursed if the employee does not return to work. This Federal law is applicable to employers who have 50 or more employees.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) regulates all aspects of employee benefit plans by the federal government, setting forth numerous requirements in order that contributions to the plans be qualified for tax deduction by the employer. ERISA establishes various minimum plan requirements, sets fiduciary responsibility standards for administrators and trustees and creates reporting and disclosure requirements and the like.
The Federal statute pertaining to veterans re-employment rights requires that employers re-employ veterans who have been inducted into the arm forces upon the conclusion of service.
"COBRA" is the acronym for the requirement that individuals who would lose health care coverage due to death, loss of reduction of employment, divorce, emancipation, the employer's bankruptcy or Medicare entitlement, are entitled to self pay for continued coverage. COBRA benefits must be offered to individuals suffering one of these "qualifying events" if the employer has 20 or more employees. The employer must provide notice to the individual, who then has an election period. Depending on the reason for the loss of coverage, the right to purchase COBRA continuation coverage can continue for between 18 and 36 months, or longer where an employer goes bankrupt.
In addition to the above statutes, there are various tax laws, labor laws, occupational safety and health laws, wage and hour standards, minimum wage laws, workers' compensation laws and similar provisions which must be followed in order to avoid possible civil and even criminal penalties. From the perspective of an employer, great care must be taken to ensure that employment decisions and conditions are in compliance with the various legal requirements. From the perspective of an employee or a job applicant, improper treatment by an employer or prospective employer, may create a legal cause of action against the offending party. From an employer's standpoint, compliance with the law is not difficult as long as one has proper procedures in effect, and adequate professional guidance. Compliance with law is far superior to facing the consequences of civil litigation. To an employee or job applicant, every adverse action by an employer does not give rise to a law suit, but where significant protections are violated, the law provides certain important remedies.
The foregoing overview only touches upon the increasingly complex battery of statutes and regulations applicable to the employment relationship. Many of these statutes apply to situations other than employment, as well. We, as lawyers, are available to provide advice and guidance regarding these and other aspects of employment law.