Employee rights in the United States

Employees in the United States have basic legal rights that ensure working conditions will keep them safe, healthy, and treated fairly. These employee rights are made up of both federal rules and regulations, and state laws.

When learning about employee rights in the US, it’s recommended you start with federal rules and regulations — as these laws apply to all states.

The United States Labor law sets the minimum rights and duties for employees, labor unions and employers in the United States. It encourages state laws to go beyond the minimum to favor employees. 

Labor law’s basic aim is to remedy the inequality of bargaining power between employees and employers.

What are the federal regulations in the United States?

1. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

This is the law that establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, state, and local governments.

How to know whether someone is covered by THE FLSA

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, an employee is covered by FSLA if they work for certain enterprises that have workers engaged in; 

  • interstate commerce;
  • producing goods for interstate commerce;
  • handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for such commerce by any person.

What does “certain enterprises” mean? These are businesses or organizations that:

–  have an annual dollar volume of sales or business done of at least $500,000 (exclusive of excise taxes at the retail level that are separately stated); or

– are hospitals, businesses providing medical or nursing care for residents, schools and preschools, and government agencies

Note: These “enterprises” must have at least two employees 

But, employees that do not work for companies that qualify for “enterprise coverage” are still protected if their work; 

– regularly involves them in commerce between States (“interstate commerce”);

– means they are “engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.”

For more specific information, be sure to visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s website. You can also call its toll-free information and helpline on: 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243).

2. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):

The FMLA is here to help working individuals still achieve a healthy balance of both work and family life. It does this by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. 

The U.S. Department of Labor also states that the FMLA “seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunities for men and women.”

Who is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

Similar to the FLSA, the FMLA only applies to employees within a company that meets certain criteria. Here is the criteria that the U.S Department of Labor gives:

  • An organization in the private sector with 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. This includes a joint employer or successor in interest to a covered employer. 
  • An organization that is a public agency, including a local, state, or federal government agency. (This is regardless of the number of people it employs.)
  • A public or private elementary or secondary school. (Again, this is regardless of the number of people it employs.)

Employees themselves must also meet certain criteria to be eligible:

  • works for a “covered employer” (as stated above);
  • has worked for the employer for at least 12 months. (Note that this doesn’t have to be 12 consecutive months, but does have to be within the last seven years. This is unless the break is covered by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA);
  • has at least 1,250 hours of service for the employer during the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave*; and;
  • works at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.

*special hours of service eligibility requirements apply to airline flight crew employees, which you can read about on the government’s dedicated fact sheet.

The right to fair pay

Employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act are protected by laws around basic minimum wage and overtime pay standards. These are set by the U.S. Department of Labor and full details can be found on the government’s website

Minimum wage

  • The Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour for workers covered by the FLSA.
  • Tipped employees may be paid $2.13 per hour. However, if an employee’s tips plus their cash wage does not equal the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the employer must make up the difference.


  • After 40 hours of work within a workweek, an employer must pay an overtime rate. This must be no less than 150% of your normal rate of pay. There are exemptions, such as managers and certain sales employees and professionals, which you can find out more about on the government’s website

Normally, overtime pay earned in a particular workweek must be paid on the regular payday for the pay period in which the wages were earned. 

What’s not covered? 

The FLSA doesn’t require employers to pay any of the following:

  • Severance pay
  • Sick leave
  • Vacations
  • Holidays

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great employers offering this and more. To find great workplaces creating a workplace where all women can thrive, take a look at WORK180’s ‘Compare employers’ area.

The right to medical, family, and parental leave

An “eligible employee” of an employer covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act has the right to take unpaid leave for specific family and medical reasons. Plus, their job will be protected during this time.

Specific family and medical reasons for unpaid job-protected leave:

  • When the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition
  • During the birth and aftercare of an employee’s child
  • The placement of an adopted or fostered child with an employee  
  • To care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition 

The government’s website also states that for the first year after their child’s birth, a mother (who is subject to the FLSA’s overtime requirements) must be provided with reasonable break time to express milk when they need to. 

Employers are also required to provide a place for the employee to express breast milk. This cannot be a bathroom, it must be shielded from the view of anyone else, and free from any risk of intrusion.

Leading employers also offer flexible work

From remote work to adjusted hours, flexibility is one of the most powerful ways in which companies can help employees strike a work-life balance. It also helps remove workplace barriers and thrive.  

This isn’t just in a practical sense, such as opening up opportunities for those with disabilities or helping employees manage the domestic load (which disproportionately impacts many women); by normalizing flexibility for every employee, these approaches reduce the stigma attached to the practice for those that need it. This promotes shared responsibility of unpaid care, which is crucial in the fight for gender equity.

The right to equal pay

Since 1963, the Equal Pay Act has meant that employers are legally required to provide men and women with equal pay for equal work. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the job doesn’t need to be exactly the same, but the work must be “substantially equal”. Note that this pertains to the content of the job, not the job title.


Why great employers focus on equity 

While equal pay for equal value of work is a legal requirement, unequal access to opportunities continues to result in pay gaps between different genders, race, and ethnicities. 

That’s why great employers are focusing on pay equity. This means that they’re not just providing equal pay for equal work, but are actively supporting women and marginalized individuals to make it to the same position as those who have faced fewer barriers within their careers.

The right to not be discriminated against based on age

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a great resource for understanding the legalities behind age discrimination. For example, it makes it clear that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids employers from discriminating against current or potential employees that are at least 40 years of age. What’s more, the act means employers must not retaliate against anyone;

  • opposing age discrimination practices;
  • filing an age discrimination charge;
  • testifying or participating in an ADEA case.

The AFL-CIO also says that it’s generally unlawful to include age preferences, limitations, or specifications in job notices or announcements. And, while the ADEA doesn’t specifically prohibit an employer from asking an applicant’s age or date of birth, these requests must only be made for a lawful purpose (which, of course, doesn’t include discrimination based on age).

The right to an inclusive hiring process

When it comes to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization, it’s crucial that companies provide fair and equal access to their opportunities. This starts with the hiring process. 

WORK180 champions the importance of fair and transparent hiring processes that empower women of all backgrounds and experiences to apply and know they will be genuinely considered. This can be achieved through many different strategies, from inclusive job advertisements and a focus on transferable skills, to clear selection and shortlisting processes and balanced interview panels. WORK180 also encourages the employers we endorse and support to draw on candidate feedback to continuously review and improve the overall experience.

The right to not be discriminated against based on disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) act prohibits discrimination against people based on a disability in a number of scenarios: 

  • In employment and public services
  • On public and private transportation 
  • In public accommodations
  • In telecommunication services 

These standards apply to private employers with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, and government at all levels. These standards also apply to federal sector employees. 

Who does ADA cover? 

  • An individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities
  • An individual that has a record of such impairment
  • Someone regarded as having a condition people would mistakenly perceive as limiting, such as disfigurement

Who does ADA not cover?

  • Those with temporary disabilities
  • Those with minor illnesses
  • Alcoholics or active drug users 

The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to enable an otherwise qualified person with a disability to do their job. The AFL-CIO describes a reasonable accommodation as “any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help an individual with a disability apply for a job or perform the duties of a job.” The AFL-CIO also tells us that an employer doesn’t have to provide reasonable accommodation if it;

  • imposes an “undue hardship” on the employer;
  • and/or requires them to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation.

Internal culture and values

WORK180 endorses and supports employers who proactively work to build inclusive cultures in which a wide range of people can come together and thrive. This involves removing any social, physical, or mental barriers that may prevent individuals from feeling safe, comfortable, confident, or able to fully contribute in the workplace.

This can take many forms: policies related to work attire, personal grooming and acceptable workplace behavior, initiatives that raise awareness of different cultures and communities, or even the provision of dedicated spaces, like private pumping rooms for working mothers or accessibility options for individuals with disabilities.

The right to not be discriminated against due to pregnancy

It’s illegal for employers to discriminate against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical conditions. This is thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which also states: 

“If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer or other covered entity must treat her in the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee. For example, the employer may have to provide light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave, or unpaid leave to pregnant employees if it does so for other temporarily disabled employees.

A pregnant worker can remain on the job as long as they are able to perform the work. The AFL-CIO also explains that employers must hold open a job for a pregnancy-related absence, as long as jobs are normally held open for workers on sick or disability leave. 

Shared caring responsibility

Creating a culture that promotes and supports equal and shared responsibility for parents and carers — regardless of gender — is critical to enabling women to thrive in the workplace.

From gender-neutral parental policies to return-to-work programs, employers can support their all-important workforce while removing damaging stereotypes. WORK180 amplifies the impact of such policies by displaying them on our transparent platform, ultimately showing women what a supportive workplace looks like.

The right to not be sexually harassed in the workplace

Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination, which violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As such, employers must investigate any complaints of sexual harassment. They must then take appropriate steps to end the harassment and prevent it from recurring. 

What is sexual harassment in the workplace? 

Examples include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and more subtle physical or verbal comments that build-up to “create a hostile or offensive work environment or […] results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”

The Civil Rights Act makes it clear that the victim doesn’t have to be of the opposite sex and that sexual harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature; it can also include offensive remarks about a person’s sex or gender. The example given on the government website is “harass[ing] a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”

Employee support services

From domestic violence to ageism and ableism, women and underrepresented groups often face a multitude of workplace barriers. We encourage employers to recognize the role they must play in the systemic removal of such barriers while offering robust (often external) support for those impacted.

Examples include Domestic Violence and Abuse (DVA) policies, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide independent and anonymous support, and health and wellbeing programs.

The right to not be discriminated against based on race or ethnicity

Treating someone unfavorably due to their race or personal characteristics associated with race is called racial discrimination. This violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is therefore illegal. 

The Civil Rights Act means employees are protected against their race being used against them for hiring, firing, pay, and benefits, or being subject to any form of harassment. The AFL-CIO also advise that employers must be careful when implementing a policy that applies to everyone, regardless of race or color: 

The policy can still be unlawful if it has a negative impact on the employment of people of a particular race or color, is not related to the job and necessary to the operation of the business.”

Representative leadership

Not only do leadership teams have the ultimate decision-making power, but they can also inspire those in and outside of the organization. So while achieving diversity will have a positive impact at any level, an increased focus on achieving diversity in leadership will have the greatest impact, in both the short and long term.

That’s why WORK180 benchmarks progress on balanced leadership in all its forms, whether it’s achieved through targets and quotas, internal succession planning, or other initiatives.

The right to not have your employment terminated due to discrimination

According to the AFL-CIO, certain workers are protected against being fired for no just cause: 

  1. Workers in a union 
  2. Employees with a written employment contract that specify the length of employment and the reasons the employee can be dismissed
  3. Government employees covered by civil service laws that prohibit employers from firing a worker without just cause 

For employees of private employers that are not members of a union and protected by a collective bargaining agreement are “employed at will”. This means that both employee or employer can terminate the employment without any notice. However, federal law makes it illegal for most employees to be fired for reasons of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, ableism, or ageism. 

To find out if a particular company is covered by these federal laws, take a look at Nolo’s article Federal Antidiscrimination Laws.

The information on this page has been compiled on the basis of general information current at the time of publication. 
Please note that the contents of webpage and any information provided by WORK180 do not constitute legal advice and are not intended to be a substitute for legal or other professional advice and should not be relied upon as such.

Your specific circumstances or changes in circumstances after publication may affect the completeness or accuracy of this information. You should seek legal advice or other professional advice in relation to any particular matters you or your organisation may haveTo the maximum extent permitted by law, we disclaim all liability for any errors or omissions contained in this information or any failure to update or correct this information. It is your responsibility to assess and verify the accuracy, completeness, currency and reliability of the information on this website, and to seek professional advice where necessary.