The area of the law that deals with issues in the workplace is often referred to as “Labor and Employment Law.”  But is there a difference between Labor Law and Employment Law?  The answer is yes, there is. Generally speaking, Labor Law deals with issues involving the relationship between organized labor (i.e., unions) and management. Employment Law, on the other hand, deals with the rights and remedies of individual employees in the workplace. Because only about 10% of American workers belong to unions, the vast majority of problems faced by workers will fall under the category of Employment Law.

Two of the most common areas of Employment Law involve claims for unpaid overtime wages and employment discrimination.

Unpaid Overtime:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is a federal law that requires employees be paid at least the established minimum wage and overtime payment at one and one-half the employee’s regular hourly rate for all hours over 40 worked in a workweek.

Unless the employee is exempt from FLSA coverage, they are entitled to overtime pay for all overtime hours worked. So, what does it take to be exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA? Well, first of all, simply being paid a salary does not mean you are not entitled to overtime. This a common myth.  In fact, many workers who are paid a salary are also entitled to overtime payment for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek. But because so many workers do not understand the law, they simply assume that since they are paid a salary, they are not entitled to overtime and the employer gets away with keeping money that should legally have been paid to the employee as overtime wages.

Another common violation occurs when the employer unlawfully classifies a worker as an independent contractor or a 1099 worker.  When this is done the worker often works more than 40 hours in a week without extra pay for overtime hours. Many, if not most, workers classified as independent contractors or 1099 workers are actually legally considered employees and are entitled to overtime pay for overtime hours worked. This is true even if the worker agreed to be classified as an independent contractor or a 1099 worker.

Fortunately, the law allows workers to sue for unpaid overtime and to collect up to twice as much as the amount owed from current and former employers along with attorney’s fees. The law allows recovery going back at least two years, and sometimes three years.

Employment Discrimination:

Another common area of Employment Law involves discrimination in the workplace.  It is illegal for an employer to discriminate in the hiring, promotion, or firing of employees because of an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It is also illegal to discriminate because of an employee’s age, disability, or pregnancy. These laws apply to employers who employ 15 or more employees, 20 if the claim is based on age.  There are other types of discrimination that are illegal, but these are the most common.  It is illegal to discriminate based on these characteristics and wrongful termination occurs when an employee is fired because of one of these reasons.

Federal law allows an employee who suffers this type of discrimination to sue for money damages. However, often the employee must first file a charge of discrimination with a governmental agency and there are strict time deadlines that must be met, so it is important that the worker who is the victim of illegal discrimination act quickly.