Labor Law

Updated March 13, 2023
9 min read

Anyone working in the United States, whether on a work visa or as a U.S. citizen is protected through United States labor laws. These are sets of federal laws that apply to all companies, no matter where they operate. 

What Is Labor Law?

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is responsible for creating and enforcing federal laws for employment, known as employment rights. These laws oversee things like how much you are paid, how many hours you can work, what days off you get, and when you can be fired. At present they ensure states and companies adhere to over 150 federal laws, for 150 million employees across 10 million companies nationwide. The DOC provides regulations for workers, contractors, job applicants, retirees, and businesses. 

Wages and Hours

The number of hours you can work, and how much you are paid for that work is determined by the Fair Labor Standards Act. This is a federal law that applies to all private and public workers and sets up the minimum wage. There is a specific branch within the DOL responsible for overseeing that companies pay their employees the right wage. This is the Wage and Hour Division. They ensure companies pay, at the very least, the federal minimum wage and any applicable overtime compensation at a rate of 1.5 times regular pay. It is this same division which oversees labor standards for those who have authorization to work in the U.S. but are not U.S. citizens. This is dictated by the Immigration and Nationality Act. 

Workplace Safety and Health

The federal government has another department in charge of workplace safety and health. The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act is a set of federal laws that dictate what employers have to do to keep their workplace safe and their employees protected from physical or mental harm. These federal laws are written and enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA applies to all public and private industries and offers state level employment laws that keep workplaces free from hazards. These laws are enforced by workplace investigations and inspections. Employees are protected by federal and state law so they can report hazards in the workplace to OSHA or report to investigators. 

There are many posters legally required to be displayed in all places of work which explain the federal laws for safe and healthy workplaces, based on industry, what the federal minimum wage is, and where/how to report problems within the workplace. 

Workers' Compensation

Every company or public organization offers what is called workers’ compensation. This is dictated by the U.S. labor laws and offers compensation to eligible employees. The DOL has a separate workers’ compensation program in charge of reviewing claims for compensation. Those people who are injured or taken ill on the job because of something that the employer should have prevented are entitled to compensation. People who work for state governments or private companies who have been injured on the job can contact the workers' compensation program for the state where the injury took place. 

There are other labor laws in the United States that apply to workers’ compensation for industry specific cases. 

  • The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act is overseen by The Office of Workers Compensation Programs (OWCP). This department provides medical care and compensation specifically for anyone who worked in a harbor, on a ship, or as a longshore worker. 

  • The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act is overseen by the Department of Energy and awards single payments of $150,000 and medical benefits to employees or contractors who were diagnosed with cancer or illnesses from exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica because of their work. 

  • Another program, Black Lung Benefits Act, is specifically for those who have black lung disease after working in coal mines.


In general, the federal program which pays out benefits to any employee in the United States who is disabled because of work or dies because of work remains in effect because of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA), 5 U.S.C. 8101 et seq.

Plant Closings and Layoffs

There are rules and regulations that ensure people get fair warning when they are going to be out of a job. Most of the time, regulations that have to do with firing or laying off employees fall to the state level. For example, some states are “at will” states, which means they can lay off or fire employees at will. 

However, when it comes to a large plant closing or mass layoffs, there are certain federal regulations that take precedence over state laws. For example, if a large production plant is closing, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) stipulates that employees need to be warned as early as possible so that they can get training for another job or seek other employment. 

Retirement Benefits

Some employers choose to offer retirement benefits, known as employee retirement benefits. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulates those companies which choose to offer these plans. There are federal laws and state laws that ensure companies which choose to offer these benefits do so legally, and always follow through. Some companies offer pensions or long-term health care provisions for those who retire from the company. Regulations for long-term health care are listed in the Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Labor Unions

Labor unions were not always protected by law or appreciated by employers, but now the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act passed by the U.S. government in 1959 set up protections for employees who join unions. These groups help employees get fair treatment, fight for certain workers rights, and so forth. The laws for labor unions fall under the responsibility of the Office of Labor-Management Standards.

Protection for Employees

There are other labor laws and environmental regulations that protect employees when they bring attention to things that are wrong. OSHA in particular protects employees who have complained about or reported workplace violations against repercussions. 

Sexual Harassment and Employment Laws

Employees are legally protected against sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are required to have clear company policies to prevent harassment and assault. This includes:

  • Any unwelcome advances from the same or opposite gender;

  • Any unwelcome requests for sexual favors;

  • Any sexual conduct, visual, verbal, or physical;

  • Any gender-related conduct of the same.

Domestic Violence

Federal law stipulates that employers must make reasonable changes to keep employees safe who are victims of domestic violence. These changes can include:

  • Transfers to other locations

  • Reassignment to another branch

  • A modified work schedule

  • Changed phone numbers for work

  • New locks

  • Unpaid leave or protected leave to seek medical treatment, move or change living conditions, or seek legal/law enforcement help

  • A new workstation

Labor Laws and Discrimination

Your employer cannot pay you less than similar workers because of your sexual orientation, marital status, disability, race, religion, national origin, or age. 

Enforcing Safety and Labor Laws

Enforcing safety and labor laws is based on the division in charge of each group or category of laws. For example, as mentioned, OSHA is an individual department in charge of enforcing workplace health and safety laws. Labor unions fall to the Office of Labor-Management Standards.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can my employer do a polygraph on me?

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibits most employers from using polygraph tests, or lie detector tests on their employees. Only under certain circumstances, like government specific jobs, can this be used or required for employment. In cases where that applies, the Wage and Hour Division is in charge. 

2. Does the government have the right to take money from my paycheck?

Taking money from your paycheck, or garnishing your wages, is regulated by Consumer Credit Protection Act but enforced by the Wage and Hour Division.Yes, the government can legally garnish your wages if you owe things like back taxes, child support, or have other debts. Letters are sent to your employer informing them of the garnishment and they take it directly from your paycheck. 

3. Do working labor laws give me paid leave?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with more than 50 employees provide up to 12 weeks of leave for specific circumstances. In some states, state law whiddles that figure down to more than 25 employees. Each state has specific rules for eligibility of employees and circumstances. Note: This federal law requires that unpaid leave be provided with your job held for you upon your return, but not paid leave.

4. Do federal labor laws apply to non-U.S. citizens with work visas?

Yes, all of the federal U.S. labor laws apply to any workers in the United States, including those with work visas, green cards and citizenship, working part-time, full time or seasonally.

5. How much does my employer have to pay me?

The federal government and the U.S. labor laws create a federal minimum wage. This is the minimum wage you have to be paid no matter where you are employed. Each state also enforces its minimum wage, which may or may not be higher than the federal minimum wage. If the federal minimum wage is higher, then employers must pay the federal minimum wage. If the state minimum wage is higher, employers in that state must pay the state minimum wage.