US employment laws have been in a constant state of progression since the Industrial Revolution, with significant changes to wage, hours, and labor terms over the years. But what is the most surprising about the development of employment laws is that a large segment of workers do not know their basic workplace rights.

Even a fundamental knowledge of your employment freedoms can help you to better understand your role in a business and your rights regarding wage, safety, fair treatment, and more.

Here is an overview of some of the important employment laws you should know as an American worker.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Designed to “put a ceiling over hours and a floor under wages”.


The FLSA was passed in 1938, near the end of the Great Depression, by Franklin D. Roosevelt, to improve poor working conditions that employees experienced during the Industrial Revolution, ban child labor, and establish minimum wage and overtime pay.

It was a significant step forward for the country as it was the first bill to be signed into law that created formal rights for workers.

What does it cover?

When the FLSA was passed, it set forth a maximum 44 hour work week, $0.25 minimum wage, and also prohibited children under 14 from working, and prevented those who were under 18 from working in dangerous jobs.

Since its introduction, the Fair Labor Standards Act has been amended over twenty times, including the move to a 40 hour work week in 1940 (with certain exemptions) and an incline of minimum wage amendments, sitting at $7.25 as of 2009.

Why you should know:

The Fair Labor Standards Act affects almost everyone to some degree. It’s important to recognize that the FLSA exists to protect workers because it puts a minimum wage in place that employers cannot legally disobey, as well as discusses salary, overtime, and exceptions to wages for certain employment groups.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)


Although initially rejected from congress during 1984 to 1993, The Family and Medical Leave Act was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, to protect workers who require leave from work for serious medical conditions or for parents to bond with a new child.

What does it cover?

The FMLA was put in place to give workers the ability to take protected leave from their job to care for an ill spouse, child, or parent, spend time with a newborn or adopted child, or to take time for their own medical conditions. An employee may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with continued employee health benefits.

Why you should know:

If a loved one needs your care, knowing about this law may help you to secure time off in order to care for them. Additionally, if you become hurt yourself, you may be eligible under the FMLA to take time off, or if you become pregnant or expect to adopt a child, this leave may be used in combination with maternity leave, depending on your place of employment, to provide you with benefits and a job waiting for you when you return.

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)


In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), a long-awaited response to the high number of workplace deaths during that time, which was approximately 14,000 in 1970 alone. The law brought to light the importance of safety in the workplace by introducing safety standards, education, and training for employees.

What does it cover?

OSHA was passed to decrease workplace hazards and prevent death and injury on the job. Employers are expected to follow strict workplace and safety standards, as well as provide education and training to employees on safe practices and procedures.

For instance, employees should be given proper protective gear and information regarding workplace hazards and how to prevent accidents. Also, methods for filing, documenting, and posting workplace injuries and complaints were also initiated for both employers and employees.

Why you should know:

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed, the number of workplace deaths lowered to 4,340 in 2009. Any worker who is at risk of injury due to a dangerous job or workplace may find this law especially important because these regulations could help to save their life.

OSHA is also important to know if you wish to report a complaint about workplace hazards, suspect your employer is not following safety regulations, or you’ve been injured at work.

Civil Rights Act


Perhaps the most well-known law in the series is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which served as the foundation for civil rights and spurred many workplace laws to come. Although it was initially proposed by John F. Kennedy, the Act was signed by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to abolish segregation in public places and outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender by employers.

What does it cover?

The Civil Rights Act covers discrimination in all public places, making it illegal to deny someone service because of their skin color. It also banned any discrimination by employers and unions during hiring, promoting, or firing in the workplace. Essentially, it gave everyone equal protection and access under the law, including the right to vote.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963, an amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, was signed by Kennedy to close the gender pay gap between men and women. Sex discrimination was then added to the Civil Rights Act the following year.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act specifically covers employment, protecting employees from any type of discrimination in the workplace. From this law, several other laws were created to reinforce the Act’s stance on discrimination in the workplace, including legislation banning discrimination against age (Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967), pregnancy (Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978), and disabilities (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).

In 1972, Title VII was amended through the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which gave the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission authorization to enforce civil rights in the workplace and define discrimination.

Why you should know:

Not only is the Civil Rights Act a landmark piece of legislation for the United States, but it has set in motion several other laws to guarantee fair treatment in the workplace.

While legislation has increased awareness of employment discrimination, it has not eliminated it. Understanding this law can help to give employees a fair chance at landing jobs and succeeding in their roles.

These laws extend to the entire employment process, from recruitment to benefits, in an effort to end discriminatory practices in the workplace. Moreover, if you ever experience or witness workplace discrimination, you are armed with the information you need to speak out.

Knowing Your Rights as an Employee

Since the FLSA of 1938 and Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the OSHA of 1970 and the FMLA of 1993, workers have fought hard for their rights in the workplace. Advances have been made, but there are still areas to be explored and expanded in terms of legislation.

Becoming informed about workplace laws, including fair treatment, safety, and health can help you to protect your rights and discover areas that may still need to be improved in order to better employment conditions for yourself, your family, and the next generation of workers.

Are you aware of your rights as an employee?

Posted by Kristy DeSmit

Kristy is a blogger, Twitter enthusiast, and company legalese interpreter.