Labor and employment law deals with a broad area of law that governs the rights and duties between employers and workers. Many of the governing laws are designed to keep workers safe and ensure they are treated fairly, although laws also protect employers’ interests. Employment laws are based on federal and state constitutions, legislation, administrative rules, and court opinions. Select employment relationships may also be governed by contract.
Many of the employment disputes that result in litigation deal with “wage and hour” violations. Federal law establishes baseline rules with respect to these issues, and then states are free to pass laws providing additional protections. For example, federal law requires a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. A majority of states have approved a higher minimum wage (14 states put new minimum wages into effect on January 1, 2016), and employers in those states must comply. Wage and hour laws also regulate overtime pay. The federal government does not place limits on the number of hours adults may work per week, but after 40 hours, employers must pay additional compensation, unless the employee falls into a category “exempt” from the law. Many disputes revolve around whether an employee is properly classified as “exempt” from the time-and-a-half overtime pay requirement under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Discrimination in the workplace is another basis for many employment law cases. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act make it illegal to treat workers differently based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, age, or disability. Many employees seeking to pursue discrimination claims hire attorneys, as they must follow detailed procedures, such as obtaining a Right-To-Sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Employers hire attorneys to defend against these lawsuits and to ensure compliance with appropriate laws before disciplinary action or termination occurs.
Current “hot” issues in labor and employment law include sexual orientation and gender discrimination, race and national origin discrimination, and the exercise of religion in the workplace.Wage and hour disputes and disagreement over whether an individual is properly categorized as an “employee” versus an “independent contractor” are also an important part of an employment lawyer’s workload.
What do labor and employment lawyers do?
Attorneys play a role on both the labor and management side of labor relations disputes. Labor and employment attorneys work in private firms;non-profit policy and direct service organizations; and federal, state, local, and international government agencies. Typically, labor and employment lawyers stick to one “side” of representations – working on behalf of employers, employees, or unions – although there are more nuanced situations, such as representing executives or non-competition agreements.
Litigation often constitutes a significant component of employment law practice, and some large law firms have labor and employment attorneys within their general litigation practice group, rather than in a separate group. While many of the laws governing labor and employment law are federal laws and regulations, many states and some localities have enacted their own laws governing employment and compensation. Non-competition clauses in employment contracts may also lead to litigation in state or local courts.
Mediation, negotiation, and arbitration are another set of labor and employment practices. While the roles that attorneys play in alternative dispute resolution may vary, most of the mediation and arbitration work is centered on issues arising under contracts between employees and their employers, whether a collective bargaining agreement with a union or mandatory arbitration clauses in employee handbooks. Labor lawyers may also be involved with organizing efforts when working for or with unions, or to oppose organizing if on the employer-side. Labor and employment lawyers who work for government agencies may spend much of their time engaged in rulemaking and regulatory enforcement, and those in private practice engage in a good deal of advice work.
Labor and employment attorneys may advise their clients on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the legality of performing background checks on potential employees to the elements of a discrimination claim to whether an individual should be treated as an employee or an independent contractor under labor and tax laws. Labor and employment lawyers in private practice might also advise their clients on issues relating to human resources, such as overseeing the discipline or termination of an employee to minimize the risks of unlawful actions.
What to do if you’re interested in pursuing a career in labor employment
Employers will look for a strong demonstrated interest in labor or employment law. You can show this interest by interning with an organization undertaking labor or employment law work, writing relevant articles for journals, taking courses focused on labor and employment law issues, and/or participating in a clinic dealing with labor or employment issues.
- Employment Law
- Employment Discrimination
- Labor Law: Union Organization, Collective Bargaining, and Unfair Labor Practices
- Disability Discrimination Law
- Contemporary Bias and Law Seminar
- Corporate Responsibility for Workers in the Global Supply Chain Seminar
- Delaney Public Policy Scholars Program
- Gender and Sexuality: Law and Theory
- International Law of Labor and Employment
- Labor Arbitration Seminar
- Low-Wage and Excluded Workers Practicum
- Modern Abolition: The Practice of Ending Child Labor and Human Trafficking Practicum
- Sexual Orientation and the Law: Selected Topics in Civil Rights
- Michael H. Gottesman
- Eleanor Holmes Norton
- James C. Oldham
- Susan Deller Ross
- Alvaro Santos
- Jamillah Bowman Williams
- ABA Section of Labor Employment Law (law students may join for free)
- National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) (law students can join for $20 per year;membership permits access to NELA members and a variety of publications and a job bank)
- Labor Employment committees of city and state Bar Associations;state and local chapters of NELA
- Though many lawyers practicing labor and employment law reside in large cities such as New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, attorneys can practice labor and employment law nearly anywhere in the country and in the world. States with strict employment laws, such as California, will see a slightly “hotter” practice in this area.
- If you are interested in international labor issues, you may consider working in areas with more agriculture, such as California, the South, or Florida, where migrant workers may present a host of employment issues.