Most people go to work, get their paycheck, enjoy their compensated time off and never give much thought to the myriad of federal and state labor and employment laws that have enabled them to enjoy certain rights and benefits in the workplace.  Both federal and state governments within the United States have enacted employment laws, which are regulations that deal with the relationship between an employee and his/her employer.

A common legal question is:  what are the differences, if any, between federal and state governments and how this affects employment laws and regulations?

For example, a few very significant federal laws have changed the course of employment conditions as it relates to workers in the workplace.  Most notable of these federal laws geared toward the protection of the employee are those:

1) Relating to the minimum wage (which originated with the Fair Labor Standards Act, often abbreviated as “FLSA”);

2) relating to occupational safety (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  or “OSHA” which is a federal organization within the Department of Labor which strives to ensures safe and healthy working conditions for American workers by enforcing standards and providing workplace safety training); and

3)  relating to the right to unionize (The National Labor Relations Act, also referred to as the “NLRA” gives employees the right to form or join a union and the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 29 U.S.C. § 401-531 better known as the Taft–Hartley Act is a United States federal law that restricts the activities and power of labor unions.

For the most part, federal laws constitute a minimum level of employment regulation, while state laws are stricter.

Federal versus state laws

Although you might think that federal law trumps state law every time, this is not true. The three major acts mentioned are a good example.

The Fair Labor Standards Act.  One of the most-common legal questions is trying to comprehend the minimum wage laws and why they are so disparate between states and in relation to the current federal minimum wage law.  So, first, let’s look at number one, which pertains to the minimum wage laws.  As you are probably aware, both federal, as well as state, employment laws delineate a minimum hourly wage for every employee that is a part of the United States’ workforce.  In some states where the federal wage is higher than the local minimum wage, the federal wage prevails.  In some states that have no minimum wage law, the federal minimum wage also applies.  The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which was enacted by President Obama in July of 2009.  As mentioned above, a good many states have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage and some states have increased their minimum wage automatically every year to correspond with inflation.

When the federal law known as the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted, it did not just require employers to pay its employees at least the minimum wage, but also the employees must be paid for overtime.  Some employees are exempt from the minimum wage and overtime requirements, as provided in the FLSA.  Additionally, states also have their own wage and hours laws and here is why the federal law does not always trump state law:  when there is a difference between applicable federal and state law, the law which governs is that most favorable to the employee, thus federal law cannot preempt or displace state law in the wage hour area.

This, however, is contrary in states with minimum wage rates less than those required under federal law; then the FLSA generally controls the wages of non-exempt employees within its scope.  In the case where an employee may be subject to both federal and state laws but be exempt from minimum wages under the FLSA by reason of his bona fide administrative status, then he or she may be paid the state minimum wage even though it is less than the federal minimum.

In general, your individual state wage hour provisions mirror those contained in the FLSA with the state laws adopting the federal law as applicable to their covered employees.

To take it a step further, there are some states that have special compensation rules, which are known as wage orders.  This means that minimum rates are established pertinent to certain industries.  In some cases it may exceed the federal minimum wage rate, but often they may be identical.  Wage orders can also dictate overtime requirements.  Most states, however, do not differ from the federal overtime requirements, i.e., in general, overtime compensation is paid at one and one-half times the employee’s regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 in the workweek.

Occupational Safety and Health AdministrationWorkers’ occupational health and safety – “OSHA”.  As mentioned in the second category above, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  or “OSHA” is a federal organization within the Department of Labor, but each individual state has its own rules and regulations as well.

Primarily, the major difference the distinguishes the federal and state employment laws is how each state chooses to enforce the rules and regulations relating to occupational health and safety.  For example, at the federal level, the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 has empowered the Department of Labor to enact regulations to ensure workplaces are safe places for their employees.  Under this law, the individual states are encouraged to develop their own regulations and agencies for enforcing workplace safety rules.  Nearly half of the states in the union have done so, and each state has its own provisions and administrative agencies for protecting worker safety, and since federal law requires state programs to be at least as effective as federal regulation, consequently most state laws are stricter than OSHA regulations.

Unions and federal versus state law

Likewise, the third category mentioned earlier in this post, is regarding the right to unionize.  The National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to form or join a union and the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 29 U.S.C. § 401-531 better known as the Taft–Hartley Act, is a United States federal law that restricts the activities and power of labor unions.

NLRB and NLRAThe NLRB and NLRA.  The National Labor Relations Board is an independent federal regulatory agency responsible for enforcing federally mandated employment rights and resolving labor disputes.   Its primary responsibility is for enforcing the National Labor Relations Act (sometimes just referred to as “NLRA” or “the Act”) which Congress passed in 1935, and its sole purpose is to help to protect the rights of employees by allowing them to unionize or petition for better wages or benefits.  The NLRB serves to enforce the law by answering complaints and/or initiating lawsuits against companies or individuals who violate the Act.  This federal agency is headquarters in Washington, D.C. but currently has 26 regional offices across the United States where employees, on their own, with or without the aid of attorneys, may file petitions against their employers for unfair labor practices or seek an election to request union representations.

Right-to-Work Laws.  At the state level is the issue of right-to-work laws.  There are currently no right-to-work laws at the federal level.  In recent years, laws have been passed that prevent employees from being obligated to pay union dues as a condition of their employment.  As of February 2016, these laws are on the books in 26 states, thus, these individual states have enacted what is termed  “right-to-work” (or “RTW”) laws.  It is quite a coup for the workforce and very controversial within the state, when RTW is enacted – workers rejoice for they will no longer have to pay union dues, but will enjoy the rights of being union-represented employees.

The rights of workers are ever evolving, though the basic federal principles will always be in place.