The Law of Compensation: What Lawyers Need to Know
One of the glaringly sad realities in the private employment sector in the United States is that a great number of employees are not being paid the amount of income and benefits that are due them. According to data from the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor, in the last five years the WHD has recovered $1.4 billion in back wages from employers, arising from violations of federal labor laws, including those regulating the grant of certain compensation and benefits. In fiscal year 2020 alone, WHD investigations reveal that, on average, each employee is due $1,120 worth of back wages.
This is proof that many people are effectively prevented from reaping the rewards of their hard work in the form of money that should have gone into their own pockets or bank accounts all because of their employers’ non-compliance with the laws and regulations on compensation and benefits.
Hence, it is imperative for lawyers who are advising client who are employers to be well aware of federal and state laws regulating employee compensation and benefits.
Freedom to Contract and Regulation of Compensation and Benefits
Historically, the liberty to contract principle was the primary jurisprudential principle that used to govern the payment of compensation and benefits by an employer to an employee. This principle means that any potential employer and employee are free to agree and negotiate in employment contracts regarding the terms and conditions that will govern their employment relationship (including the type and amount of compensation and benefits).
The Federal Supreme Court, however, has long recognized the power of the government to regulate the liberty of contract, starting with the 1937 landmark case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. Therefore, Congress and the state legislatures have enacted various pieces of legislation that aim to provide protection to prospective employees. These laws require employers to adhere to minimum standards, terms, and conditions when providing compensation and benefits to employees.
What is the Law of Compensation
There is actually no single universal law, federal or state, that can be referred to as the law of compensation in the US. In reality, the law of compensation in the US is actually a set of distinct federal and state laws. Each of these regulate and provide rules and standards for specific types of compensation and benefits that are normally part of standard employment contracts.
The following types of compensation and benefits are among those which are regulated, to a certain extent, by existing federal and state laws:
- Minimum wage and overtime pay
- Leave benefits
- Retirement benefits
- Compensation for injuries.
This article will discuss each of these examples of the law of compensation and benefits.
Minimum wage and overtime pay
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) is the primary source of federal rules on minimum wage and overtime pay.
Under the FLSA, employers are required to pay employees at least a basic minimum wage.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Nonetheless, some state laws also provide minimum wage rates that are applicable within the respective state. In case such state laws require a higher amount of minimum wage compared to that mandated under the FLSA, employers in that state must pay the higher amount.
However, not all employees are entitled to the federal minimum wage under FLSA. A few examples of these include farm workers employed in small farms and employees employed by certain seasonal and recreational establishments.
Under the FLSA, employers are required to pay overtime pay to their employees.
The overtime pay is based on the number of hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a single workweek, at a rate of at least 1.5 times the regular rate of pay, wherein the regular pay rate must not be less than the minimum wage.
Note that FLSA does not impose any limit on the number of hours employees aged 16 and older may work in any work week. However, the FLSA does not require the payment of overtime pay for work rendered during weekends (i.e., Saturdays and Sundays), holidays, or regular days of rest.
Moreover, similar to the rules on minimum wage, certain employees are also not entitled to receive overtime pay, such as:
- Commissioned sales employees of retail or service establishments; and
- Those who work as drivers, loaders and mechanics whose main duties affect the safety of operation of vehicles in transportation of passengers or property in interstate or foreign commerce.
One shortcoming of the FLSA or any other existing federal law is that they do not create nor regulate leave benefits such as vacation leaves, holiday leaves and sick leaves, which are typical in standard employment contracts. Hence, such leave benefits are, more often than not, merely subject to agreement between the employer and the employee.
As an exception, federal law requires employers to grant their employees a form of medical and family leave. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, eligible employees are entitled to a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year, to allow said employees to attend to family and medical matters, including:
- attending to and taking care of a newborn child;
- taking care of an immediate family member with serious medical condition; or
- when the person or employee himself needs to stop working to recover from a serious medical condition.
Moreover, because of the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19, which was effective through December 31, 2020.
Employees who pay Social Security taxes and earn the necessary credits of ten (10) years of service are entitled to retirement benefits under the Social Security Act of 1935 (SSA), as amended. The amount of retirement benefits is tied to a number of factors, such as:
- The amount that an employee has earned during his or her working career. The higher the amount earned, the higher the retirement benefit.
- The retiring age. If an employee retires early (the minimum retirement age being 62 years old), the retirement benefit will be lower.
On the other hand, a number of employers have also voluntarily established private retirement plans for their employees. These are regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
ERISA provides the minimum standards which retirement plans in private companies must comply with in order to provide protection for employees who are participants in the plan. Take note, though, that ERISA does not compel private companies to establish retirement plans for their employees.
Such minimum standards as mandated by ERISA include:
- Participants must be duly informed of the features of the plan and the type and manner of funding and must be given the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.
- The retirement plan must comply with the minimum standards under ERISA for participation, vesting, benefit accrual, and funding.
- Plan sponsors must ensure that the retirement plan will be adequately funded.
- Plan fiduciaries must comply with principles of conduct and should be accountable for losses to the plan.
Compensation for injuries
Within many states, workers’ compensation programs have been established through state laws and implemented through state agencies. A common feature of these various state workers’ compensation programs is the entitlement of eligible employees to medical, disability, vocational and death benefits whenever they suffer work-related injuries or diseases. However, the amount of benefits and the timing of payment will vary from state to state. These benefits will normally include the following:
- medical expenses and supplies;
- temporary disability benefits;
- permanent disability benefits;
- funeral benefits;
- dependency benefits; and
- vocational rehabilitation benefits.
At the federal level, a number of federal statutes have been passed to provide workers’ compensation programs for specific types of workers or employees such as maritime employees; employees of the Department of Energy and its contractors and subcontractors; and coal miners.
Full compliance by employers with federal and state laws regulating compensation of employees must be at least the minimum ideal goal of every client-organization and by lawyers who advise them. This not only ensures that clients are protected from potential litigation; it also improves the plight of employees who deserve to receive whatever is due them under the law.