Federal, state, and local governments have laws that affect employers and employees in the workplace. Sometimes, these laws address the same issues, e.g., overtime pay.
The Federal Department of Labor (DOL) is a department of the federal government that enforces many federal laws related to employment. The most important of these address wages and hours of work and employee health and retirement benefits. Several other federal agencies also enforce laws and regulations regarding conditions in the workplace.
For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces many laws that ensure nondiscrimination in the workplace. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administers the primary laws governing the formation of unions in workplaces and relations between unions and employers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration enacts and enforces regulations to ensure workplace health and safety.
Most workplace laws apply in the same manner to all employees, whether or not they have disabilities. However, some laws place specific requirements on employers concerning their employees who may have disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by federal agencies, federal contractors, and any program that receives funds from the federal government.
Some laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state workers’ compensation laws, apply to all employees but have implications for them when they are injured or become disabled on the job.
Employment laws can be complex. Employers may find it challenging to understand and implement them, especially if the employer is a small business. The federal DOL and other federal agencies have numerous resources and materials that can help employers be certain that they have policies in place to comply with the many regulations that apply in the workplace.
In addition, all states in the U.S. have departments or agencies of state government that enact and enforce state regulations regarding labor and employment. These entities can also sometimes deal with claims and disputes and offer resources for helping employers comply with state regulations. A person may want to consult an attorney about which department or agency in their state is the right one to approach for their issue, whether it is discrimination, harassment, wage/hour, etc.
How Will the State Employment Agency Help Me?
How the department or agency of a state government can help in an employment dispute depends on several factors, including the state, its particular laws, and the type of dispute it is.
For example, if a worker is injured on the job, they need to notify their employer, get the medical treatment they need, and then file a claim for compensation with their state’s workers’ compensation system. This is usually a stand-alone state agency that deals only with the issues presented by workers’ claims for compensation for injuries suffered on the job.
If the worker were injured because a federal or state regulation regarding safety or health in the workplace was violated, then the worker would want to report the violation to their state workplace safety and health agency or the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Twenty-two states have workplace safety and health plans that OSHA approves. In these states, a person would want to report violations to their state’s occupational safety and health agency first.
For example, Alaska has the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Administration (AKOSH) agency. It provides all the same workplace protections as the federal OSHA and additional protections for workplaces involving oil and gas refining, oil drilling, and long shoring. So an injured worker in Alaska would report a violation to AKOSH.
Departments and agencies of federal and state governments can provide several different resources for people seeking legal relief for problems related to their employment. These may include the following:
- Performing fact-finding investigations to discover the relevant information regarding the dispute;
- Acting as a neutral third-party mediator between the employer and employee(s);
- Holding administrative hearings on complaints, making decisions as to who should win a dispute and what relief the person or entity should receive;
- Determining whether a violation such as discrimination or harassment has occurred;
- Enforcing legal relief for the victim;
- Granting appeals from administrative hearings, if appeals are allowed.
Both federal and state government agencies may provide these types of services.
For example, wage theft is an employment issue that is increasingly common in the U.S. Wage theft occurs when an employer refuses to pay an employee the benefits, whether the wages they have earned or other benefits such as breaks. Federal and state agencies helped workers recover almost $3 billion in stolen wages from 2017 to 2020.
A person can file a wage theft complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the federal DOL. In 10 states, there are state wage theft laws, and a person may want to contact their state department of labor. The 10 states with their own wage theft laws are as follows:
- New Jersey
- New York;
Can I File Directly With a Federal Agency?
This may certainly be possible in some cases. In other cases, however, a person might be required to file a complaint first with their state’s agency that enforces the relevant law. Generally, the state agency would contact a federal agency. Both agencies may do a preliminary review of a person’s case to see whether it involves federal or state laws.
In other cases, the law may specifically provide that a person cannot be required to pursue state administrative remedies before turning to a federal agency or federal court for a remedy.
However, in some cases, a person would be required to “exhaust” their “remedies” at the state level. This means that a person must pursue any remedies through processes at the state level to reach the final outcome. Only then, if the person still feels that they have not been appropriately or adequately compensated for their harm, would they be able to turn to a federal agency or court for a remedy.
For example, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, and national origin, the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) may not consider a victim’s claim until the state agency that handles employment discrimination complaints in the state in which the victim lives has had at least 60 days to resolve the matter.
A similar exhaustion of remedies may also be required before a person can file a private lawsuit in a civil court of general jurisdiction, whether federal or state. This means that if a government agency offers a process for seeking a remedy, e.g., an administrative hearing process, a person with a complaint must use the process. Only if they believe that they have not obtained the remedy they deserve can they file a court complaint.
There may be a way around this requirement. In many states, the relevant state agency would offer a person a waiver to skip any state administrative process and go directly to a state civil court to file a lawsuit for an employment dispute from the outset. This may depend on the individual factors surrounding their claim.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With State Employment Disputes?
If you have had a dispute in your workplace, you want to consult an experienced workplace lawyer. Your lawyer can identify the agency or department of your state’s government that might handle your dispute.
Your lawyer can explain the processes for obtaining a remedy, whether you must turn to a state agency first or look to a federal agency for relief. Your attorney can guide you through the process and provide you with representation during any hearings.
If you are an employer and want to avoid state and federal employment disputes and stay out of court, a workplace lawyer can help you put policies and procedures in place that will help you do what is necessary to avoid problems.
If you have been injured on the job and need compensation for your economic losses, you would turn to a workers’ compensation lawyer for help seeking a remedy.