Employee Laws in Florida
When you go to work in Florida, you expect that your employer will pay you a reasonable salary for your work and treat you fairly. Things were not always this way, however. In times past, employees were at the mercy of their employers. Anemployer could refuse to pay wages to his or her employees, could force employees to work long hours in unsafe conditions, and terminate an employee for any reason at all. Now, employees in Florida and around the nation are protected by legislation that gives them certain rights, as well as remedies for when an employer does violate their rights. Understanding employment law is important in ensuring your employer treats you fairly and will help you know what to do when you feel your rights have been violated.
Basics of Employee Rights Legislation
Three main federal laws are responsible for many of the workplace rights enjoyed by employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mainly governs issues regarding employee wages and overtime hours. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides employees with certain protections if the employee must temporarily leave his or her job because of certain health-related issues. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is designed to ensure that employees’ work environments are safe and free from dangerous conditions.
These three main federal laws, combined with other federal laws and state laws, provide employees with a number of rights and protections. Whenever both federal and state employment laws cover the same issue, the law that grants the employee greater protections will apply. For instance, where the federal law guarantees a certain minimum wage, and state law provides for a higher minimum wage, the employee will be entitled to the higher minimum wage.
Rights During the Application Process
No Discrimination in Hiring Process
During the job application process, federal and state anti-discrimination laws protect applicants from discrimination. In particular, it is illegal for an employer to:
- Discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964);
- Pay men and women unequally despite performing substantially similar work (Equal Pay Act of 1963);
- Discriminate on the basis of age (Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967);
- Discriminate on the basis of disability, if the applicant is otherwise qualified (Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973); or
- Discriminate based on an applicant’s genetic information (Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008).
These protections mean that the following types of application or interview questions are generally improper:
- “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
- “How old are you?”
- “What is your marital status” or “Do you plan to have a family?”
- “Do you have any genetic diseases?”
No Drug Tests Against Applicant’s Will
It is also illegal for employers to force job applicants to take a drug test. In other words, an employer cannot force a job applicant to take a drug test against the applicant’s will. (Note, however, that it is lawful for an employer to offer a job that is contingent on successfully passing a drug test. In this case, the applicant still has a choice as to whether he or she wishes to submit to the test.)
Rights After Being Hired
Florida is an “at-will” employment state, meaning that either you or your employer can terminate your employment at any time and without any advance warning. However, even with your employment being “at-will,” your employer cannot terminate your employment for an illegal reason. For instance, your employer is not able to terminate you because of your age or sex, even if your employment is “at-will.”
For example, suppose that Daniel is 55 years old and has just been hired by ABC Corporation. Daniel’s employment contract states that his employment is “at-will.” Four months after he is hired, Daniel is informed that he is being fired. ABC Corporation does not give Daniel any explanation for its decision and only states that the decision is effective immediately. If it is shown that the decision to fire Daniel was related to his age (for instance, if there are company memos or e-mails in which the topic is discussed, or Daniel is immediately replaced by someone much younger than him), then ABC Corporation has acted illegally and Daniel’s termination is considered wrongful.
But suppose instead that ABC Corporation’s orders have declined and they must lay off a number of employees. So long as the decision to lay off Daniel is not made on the basis of his age or any other protected characteristic, ABC Corporation is within its rights to lay Daniel off with no notice.
Minimum Wage and Overtime
You also have the right to earn a certain “minimum wage” for regular hours that you work. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour; however, as of January 1, 2014, the minimum wage in Florida is $7.94 per hour. Thus, an employee in Florida covered by the minimum wage laws must be paid a minimum of $7.94 per hour worked. (If you are a tipped employee, such as a waiter or waitress, you too are entitled to a minimum wage. However, because the tips you receive forms a part of your wages, the minimum wage to which you are entitled is less.)
Overtime laws are designed to prevent an employer from taking advantage of an employee during the workweek by requiring the employee to work excessive hours without fair compensation. Under the law then, if an employee considered to be “covered” under the law works more than 40 hours in a given workweek, he or she must be compensated at a rate of at least one and one-half times his or her regular hourly rate for each hour worked in excess of 40. For instance, suppose that Rene’s workweek begins on Tuesday. Between Tuesday and the following Monday, Rene works a total of 50 hours. She is entitled to receive, at a minimum, her regular rate of pay for the first 40 hours and one and one-half times her regular rate of pay for the remaining 10 hours.
There are exceptions to the minimum wage and overtime requirements, so it is best to consult with an experienced employment law attorney to learn your exact rights.
Under the FMLA, you are entitled to time away from your workplace for certain health-related situations. Although you are not entitled to receive your pay during this time of absence, your job is protected and health insurance benefits must generally continue. Under the FMLA, you are entitled to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a twelve-month period for:
- The birth of a child and to care for a newborn child under one year of age;
- Caring for a newly adopted child or newly placed foster child during the first year of adoption or placement
- Providing care to your spouse, child, or a parent when any of them have a serious health condition; or
- A serious health condition that makes you unable to perform your job.
There are also rights under the FMLA to take unpaid medical leave to care for a servicemember that is a spouse, child, or parent and who has a qualifying condition.
Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace
Just as a potential employer is not permitted to discriminate against an applicant during the job application process, an employer may not discriminate against an employee while that employee is working. Examples of discrimination can include not promoting an individual because of his or her age, denying a raise to a female employee but giving a raise to a male colleague, or reassigning the job duties of a pregnant employee.
In addition, the employer cannot maintain a harassing workplace. That is, an employer has an obligation to ensure the workplace is free from unlawful harassment. Harassment is unlawful if it is based on a protected characteristic (age, sex, etc.) and creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment. In addition, it is unlawful to harass an employee in retaliation for that employee filing a discrimination charge, or participating in an employment investigation against his or her employer. Harassment can take the form of offensive jokes, threats, physical assaults, or pictures (for example).
The protection against harassment does not cover petty annoyances or isolated incidents. Suppose that Marco works at XYZ Company. While at work one day an employee made a racially-offensive joke and Marco was offended. Marco filed a report with his supervisor and the matter was handled according to company policy. In this instance, Marco does not have a claim for harassment as the incident was isolated and handled appropriately. But suppose that some of Marco’s coworkers threaten him or people of his same race or ethnicity. Despite letting supervisors know of this, the management refuses to take action. Here, Marco’s claim of a hostile workplace is much stronger given the repeated nature of the harassment and the lack of action by management.
Safe Working Conditions
Workers are more productive when they are not constantly concerned about their safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Act was designed to protect workers from workplace hazards that might pose a risk of serious harm. Some of the protections that OSHA affords include the right to ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to conduct an inspection of one’s worksite for potential hazards and the right to receive the results of tests done to determine whether hazards exist in the workplace. Workers are also entitled to receive information and training about hazards they might encounter on the jobsite and what they can do to protect themselves from these hazards. Personal protective equipment is also to be provided to workers and workers are to be instructed on how to properly use the equipment. Finally, workers are entitled to review records of work-related injuries and illnesses kept by their employer as well as obtain copies of their medical records.
Rights of Same-Sex Couples
An emerging issue in Florida and around the nation relates to the rights homosexuals and same-sex couples enjoy in the workplace. There are already a number of counties in Florida that prohibit discrimination in hiring or employment on the basis of sexual orientation. It appears that such protections are likely to continue to expand across the state as time goes on.
If same-sex marriages are recognized in Florida one day, rights guaranteed under the FMLA and other laws are almost assuredly going to be extended to same-sex couples. For instance, once Florida and/or the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages, an employee would have the right under the FMLA to take an unpaid medical leave of absence to care for his or her same-sex partner.
Because this is an area of the law that is constantly evolving, employees involved in a same-sex relationship should consult with a knowledgeable employment law attorney to learn the nature of their rights under the current law.
Conclusion on Employee Laws in Florida
These are but a few of the rights that workers in Florida enjoy because of federal and state legislation. These rights include the right to apply for work without being discriminated against, the right to a fair wage and fair compensation, the right to a safe workplace free from discrimination and harassment, and the right to take unpaid medical leave in certain circumstances without risking one’s job or health benefits. While these laws do not prevent an employer from acting unlawfully, they do provide a means of redress if unlawful activity occurs.
An employee who knows his or her rights can not only stand up against abuses of his or her own rights but abuses of his or her coworkers’ rights as well. Employers who act unlawfully or violate their employees’ rights can have severe actions taken against them by government agencies. When attempting to resolve grievances related to employment, it is best to consult with an employment law attorney if informal discussions with the employer do not resolve the situation. And of course, if you are unsure about your precise rights, an employment law attorney can help you understand your rights as well.