U.S. Laws for Employees

Guide to Employee Rights and Obligations in the United States

Employee

This is a guide to employment laws that apply nationwide. Much employment law is also made at the state and local level. Where the state and local laws are more protective of employees, these apply instead of the federal laws. See more about the hierarchy of law at our Legal Basics. You can also see employment laws for California and New York City.

1. In General

First, be sure you are an “employee”

You should make sure you really are an “employee” rather than an independent contractor aka “freelancer.” If you are an independent contractor, most employment laws do NOT apply to you. See our Freelancer/Independent Contractor page for more.

Do employment laws apply to interns or volunteers?

Most employment laws apply to paid interns. If it is a legitimate unpaid internship or you are volunteering, most employment laws probably do not apply. See more on internships.

2. Salary, Minimum Wage & Overtime Pay

Do employers need to disclose how much a job pays?

While there is no federal law requiring employers to reveal the salary or other compensation for a job, many states and cities are implementing such pay transparency laws. As of January 2023, California, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, Nevada, New York, and Rhode Island have passed various laws either requiring employers to include ranges of salary or hourly wage in a job posting, or provide this information upon request by a person who has applied or is a potential applicant for the job.

What is the minimum wage?

Federal minimum wage is currently $7.25, but most states have a higher minimum wage than that. See here for a list of minimum wage by state. And see here for a list of cities and counties which have a higher minimum wage than their state minimum wage.

Am I entitled to overtime pay?

Workers who make less than a certain amount are entitled to “overtime pay.” Overtime pay generally kicks in after you work more than 40 hours in a week. For these extra hours, you would get 1.5 times the normal pay.

Beginning Jan 1, 2020, workers who make less than $35,568 per year are entitled to overtime pay.129 CFR 541 If you make more than that, you may be “exempt” and thus not be entitled to overtime pay, unless you live in certain states or have an employment agreement that entitles you to overtime pay. For example, in California and New York, the threshold is around $50,000 per year.

Barista rights

3. Family and Medical Leave

Do employees have the right to take time off work if they get sick, or to take care of family, or if we are having a child?

Whether employees have rights to either paid or unpaid leave for illness, or to take care of loved ones, or for pregnancy and having a child varies greatly by state. That said, at a minimum, all employees in the country who work for employers with 50 or more employees are protected by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off work, unpaid, for specified reasons, without fear of losing their job. Many states extend this period or provide for paid leave as well.

Under FMLA, you must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months, and have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave.

4. Free speech

Can my employer prohibit me from participating in political activity on my own time?

Depending on your state, you MAY have the right to protection from being fired if you speak out politically (see above), except when your posts have negative implications for your employer or when your employer’s restrictions on posting relate to your job. For example, journalists may be prohibited by their employer from volunteering for political campaigns, or participating in political marches. About half the states have some sort of protections for this, but needless to say, it’s complicated.

For example, the woman in Virginia who was fired for flipping off Trump’s motorcade did not win her wrongful termination lawsuit.

Is my employer allowed to restrict my right to use my personal social media on my own time?

In some ways, yes. If you complain about or say bad things about your employer on Facebook, etc., they can probably legally fire you.

But you DO have the right to use social media for the purpose of getting coworkers to join together to address work-related issues and share information about pay, benefits, and working conditions.2National Labor Relations Act This applies whether you are in a union or not. But BE CAREFUL here. If you just complain about your employer on social media without any intention of getting your coworkers together, this activity may not be protected. See more at the website for the National Labor Relations Board.

And as discussed above, depending on your state, you MAY have the right to speak out politically (see above).

Posting about your employer anonymously is probably fine, although it’s possible that your identity could be later revealed. However, employers may NOT require that you identify yourself when posting.3Boch Imports (2015) 362 NLRB No. 83; §8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (29 USC §158)

Is my employer allowed to prohibit me from revealing my salary?

NO. Under federal law you have the right to discuss your salary with others, and your employer is legally prohibited from doing anything to retaliate against you for doing so.4National Labor Relations Act

See more about Free Speech

5. Intellectual property

Who owns the rights to work I create during my employment?

For employees, creative work or inventions created for your employer within the scope of your employment is generally considered the employer’s “property” and the employee generally does NOT have rights to it. Such work can include business plans & presentations, drawings and artwork, inventions, etc. Most of this falls under copyright law and patent law.

This is because the work is usually considered “work made for hire,” or that you were “hired to invent”5Banks v. Unisys Corp., 228 F. 3d 1357 – Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit 2000 it. However, inventions or other works you create outside the scope of what you were hired to do are likely your intellectual property, even if it’s related to your employer’s business.6Board of Trustees v Roche

In addition, often employers will have you sign an agreement granting them all rights to any potential intellectual property you could possibly create during the employment relationship. But such agreements may be overly broad and may not hold up in court.

But even if a company does not own an employee’s invention, the company may be able to claim a “shop right” to the work, which is a non-exclusive, no-cost license to use the invention within the normal scope of their business. This may apply when an employee conceives of and perfects an invention during their hours of employment, working with the company’s materials and appliances.

However, some of this may vary by state, so be sure to check your state’s laws (see CA).

6. Taking action with other employees to improve working conditions

Do I have the right to try to improve working conditions at my job?

You have the right to organize co-workers to take actions with the goal of improving the terms and conditions of your employment, including forming a union. A single employee may act alone if he or she is acting on behalf of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action.7National Labor Relations Act You do NOT need to be in a union to exercise this right.

7. Taxes

Employers are required to send you a copy of a W-2 form by Jan 31 for the prior year’s income. The W-2 says how much that employer paid you in that year, and how much they took out in taxes.

See more about your rights as a taxpayer.

8. Discrimination & Harassment

Is it illegal for my employer to discriminate against me?

In the U.S., under federal law, employers are only subject to anti-discrimination law if they have at least 15 employees.842 USC §2000e(b)

Such employers may not discriminate against employees on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Many states and cities protect even more characteristics than federal law.

See more at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What is the law about harassment at work?

If you are verbally or sexually harassed or bullied on the basis of any protected category of people (see EEOC), or as a result of retaliation for reporting things to the government, you may have a claim against your employer.

Is it illegal for my boss to yell at me?

Generally, no. For the most part, it is not illegal to be a jerk or bully. However, if a superior is acting in this way because they are biased towards a certain protected group of people (see above), this may be illegal.

Is a “toxic work environment” illegal?

Again, no it is not generally illegal for an employer to create a toxic work environment, unless it is directed towards a protected group such as a particular race.

9. Termination

What can I do if I get fired?

If you are fired as a result of discrimination or retaliation for whistleblowing, you may have a claim for “wrongful termination.” Also, if you have an employment agreement or contract that says you cannot be terminated except for “cause” or “good cause,” you may also have a claim for wrongful termination and/or breach of contract.

Other than that, you probably don’t have much recourse if you get fired, as the default rule is that employees are “at will,” serving at the will of the employer.

What are my rights if I am laid off?

In general, most employees are “at will,” which means the employer can let them go or lay them off at any time, for just about any reason. Generally, the employee has very few rights, if any, and is usually not entitled to severance pay or other benefits. However, if there is an employment agreement or union agreement in effect, the terms of the agreement would apply.

10. Protection against retaliation/ “Whistleblower” laws

If I file a claim against my employer or speak to a lawyer about my employer, can they fire me?

In most states, this would likely be considered “wrongful termination” for which you could sue the employer.

For employees across the country, there are several federal whistleblower protections. If you are an employee of a publicly traded company, or an employee of a contractor for that company, and you report false or misleading activities by the publicly traded company, you are protected as a “whistleblower.”9Lawson v. FMR LLC, 571 U.S. 1158 (2014), interpreting Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 This means that if you “blow the whistle,” your employer may not fire, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or otherwise discriminate against you.

Also, if you report conduct to the SEC that you reasonably believe violated the federal securities laws, you have protection against your employer terminating or otherwise taking other actions against you. This protection comes from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.10 Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Act

In addition, you may be entitled to a substantial “whistleblower award” for providing original information to the government about violations of federal financial regulations that leads to successful enforcement action where the penalties involved are over $1 million. See more at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).11Section 21F(b)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”), 15 U.S.C. §78u-6(b)(1), and Rule 21F-3(a) thereunder, 17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-3(a)

11. Suing your employer

What is arbitration and are employers allowed to force employees and prospective employees to agree to it?

Arbitration is a way to resolve legal disputes outside of the court system. Employers and large companies generally prefer arbitration rather than the courts for many reasons (see our Guide to Arbitration). Thus, many employers include a “mandatory arbitration clause” in employment contracts, requiring employees, as a condition of getting or keeping a job, to agree that if they sue the employer in the future, they must do so through arbitration rather than through the courts. Over 50% of private sector non-union employees are subject to arbitration clauses.

See more at our Guide to Arbitration and other Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Exercise Your Rights as an Employee

For questions about improving working conditions or unionizing, contact your local office of the National Labor Relations Board.

If you feel your rights have been violated, we highly encourage you to find an employment lawyer. Many employment lawyers offer free consultations, and many even agree to be paid solely as a percent of your case payout; so don’t hesitate to give them a call!

If you believe you may have experienced discrimination, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

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