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5 U.S. employment laws every person entering the job market should know

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Millions of young people attend college every year, most with the hope of gaining more job opportunities as a result. Nearly 16 million people were enrolled in undergraduate programs in the fall of 2020, according to, and with 20% set to graduate annually, millions have already begun flocking the job market this year.

If you're one of these recent graduates, it helps to have some sense of the landscape you're about to enter. In part, that job market's governed by laws put in place to protect you, the worker, from various types of predatory or abusive behaviors you might encounter. They also set in stone what you're entitled to.

"Workers have fewer rights in the United States than in many other countries," says Kimberly Phillips-Fein, professor of history at New York University. "But the ones that they have are important."

Depending on where you are in the country, different states and cities enforce different mandates on employers. But, on a federal level, there are laws most employers must abide by. Policy is nuanced and complex in terms of who it applies to ― some employers of full-time students or people with disabilities can be exempt from paying them the full minimum wage, for example ― so it's important to look at the fine print to see if these apply to you.

Here's an overview of a few federal labor and employment laws new grads should know about.

The Fair Labor Standards Act sets a minimum wage

One of the biggest national employment policies is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. It has since been changed and updated multiple times. More than 143 million American workers are protected by the FLSA, according to the Department of Labor.

First, the law sets a national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as of 2009. States and cities throughout the country set their own minimum wages as well. The minimum wage in Delaware is $10.50 per hour, for example, while the minimum wage in Washington state is $14.49 per hour. But, nationally, most employers are not allowed to pay you less than $7.25 per hour.

Tipped workers are exempt from this, as an example, like many waiters and bartenders, and instead are subject to a federal minimum wage of $2.13 per hour.

The law also stipulates that some workers who put in more than 40 hours in a seven-day period must be provided overtime pay equal to time and a half their regular rate for any additional hours. "This really applies to hourly workers" as opposed to salaried workers, says Phillips-Fein. "For some recent grads who are not hourly workers, you don't actually have that protection."

Hourly workers get paid according to the hours they work, while salaried workers get paid a consistent sum as full-time employees.

Under the FLSA, employers must also keep a record of both employee time and pay as "a way of making sure that your rights are respected," says Phillips-Fein. It also sets regulations around child labor for any workers under the age of 18.

Though the FLSA covers many workers, whether they work in the private or public sector, it still doesn't cover everyone. Independent contractors are not covered by the law, for example.

Laws cover safety, unionizing, leave and discrimination

Federal policy also covers health and safety on the job, medical leave and discrimination. Here are a few other important laws to know about:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to "provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers," according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers' rights under the law include receiving training about hazards in their workplace and OSHA standards that apply to it. 
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 "covers discrimination in your job based on race, sex, orientation, gender," says Najah Farley, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, as well as your religion and national origin.

These laws "help balance that inevitably unequal relationship"

The Department of Labor enforces the FLSA, OSHA and the FMLA. The National Labor Relations Board enforces the NLRA. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the Civil Rights Act. Each agency's site offers instructions on how to file a complaint if you believe your rights have been violated.

In addition to these, 10 states and the District of Columbia offer paid family and medical leave; 16 states and the District of Columbia mandate paid sick leave; and seven cities and the state of Oregon enforce certain scheduling practices for jobs like those in the service sector. No federal or state policies enforce paid or unpaid vacation time.

As you enter the job market, that new employer/employee relationship can sometimes feel intimidating.

"These laws, in a way, are about trying to find some way to help balance that inevitably unequal relationship," says Phillips-Fein.

Check out:

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The best financial advice I learned from my time on Wall Street
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