Employment Law: Protecting Employees

Employment law covers a vast area of law and encompasses legal issues ranging from employment contracts to creating a safer work environment to discrimination and much more. The laws related to employee-employer relationships, or employment law, was, in part, created to help protect the lives, health, and wellbeing of employees. Working conditions in the United States after the industrial revolution were dangerous and exploitation was not uncommon. Conditions that led to serious injury, long-term health consequences, lost limbs, and even death were prevalent. As the government began to take notice of workplace conditions, protections were put in place through federal and state regulations and a more even playing field began to take shape between employees and their employers.

Laws Meant to Protect

Fortunately when our government began to react to the unfavorable working conditions in some industries, things began to improve for employees across the nation. Various laws were enacted to protect workers including child labor laws, wage and hours protections, discrimination and harassment laws, and workplace safety regulations, among others.

Federal law sets the standards for labor laws; states then have authority to enact additional law or to supplement that provided under federal law.

Child Labor Laws

Federal law establishes restrictions for working children under the age of 18 under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and generally sets the minimum working age in the United States at 14 years old.

For those youth wishing to work between the ages of 16-17, there are no restrictions on work hours, however, they may not perform any job declared hazardous. Children 14 and 15 years old may only work outside of school hours under strict guidelines. New Mexico law follows the FLSA guidelines and also limits 14 and 15 year olds work to:

  • Non-school hours only
  • 3 hours in a school day
  • 18 hours in a school week
  • 8 hours in a non-school day
  • 40 hours in a non-school week
  • Hours between 7am and 7pm

Wage and Hour Protections

Under the FLSA there are broad groups of employees that are, partially or wholly, exempt from the minimum wage and overtime pay parameters as set forth by the act. For those that fall within it’s parameters, however, the act:

  • Sets the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, and
  • Requires that any employee that works over 40 hours per week be paid by their employers one and one half times their regular wage for any hours in excess of 40

New Mexico law provides for a slightly higher minimum wage of $7.50 per hour and some cities set the minimum wage even higher but it does vary slightly based on whether health benefits are offered. If no health benefits are offered the minimum wage for various municipalities in New Mexico is:

  • Albuquerque – $8.95/ hour
  • Santa Fe – $10.84/ hour
  • Bernalillo County – $8.85/ hour
  • Santa Fe County – $10.66/ hour
  • Las Cruces – $9.45/ hour

Discrimination and Harassment Laws

Workplace harassment and discrimination can go hand in hand and both can have a dramatic impact on the work environment. Harassment can affect an individual’s mental and physical health as well as a companies’ overall productivity. Protection from of this type of abuse is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act and is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Harassment violates federal law when:

  • Enduring the harassment is a condition of continued employment, or
  • The harassment rises to a level of severity where a reasonable person would consider it intimidating, hostile, or abusive

When harassment is targeted at an individual’s protected status, it is considered discrimination. Discrimination is defined as unfair treatment based on an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, genetic information, or disability.

In New Mexico, additional protections are offered under the New Mexico Human Relations Act which offers the same protections as federal law but also protects employees working for smaller companies, namely those companies with fewer than 15 employees.

Workplace Safety Regulations

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) governs federal workplace safety issues for most industries although some special government agencies handle issues in certain specific industries. OSHA can be complex and covers a wide range of employer mandates, record keeping requirements, and reporting directives.

According to the United States Department of Labor, OSHA covers four major industries but central to all are safeguards for the following:

  • Access to medical and exposure records – provides employees a right of access to their relevant medical records which include information about toxic substance exposure
  • Personal protective equipment – this safeguard requires employers to provide employees with personal equipment to protect them from injury as well as sufficient training on use of the equipment
  • Hazard communication – required hazardous manufacturers and importers to conduct evaluations of products they manufacture or import and, if determined to be hazardous, must provide a safety data sheet

The New Mexico workplace safety regulations mirror those indicated by OSHA with some additional protections including guidelines in the firefighting industry, for convenience stores, and relating to hazard communication plus some additional agricultural standards.

Filing Complaints in the Employment Law Arena

Depending on your complaint, the various bodies of law provide the manner in which a complaint or grievance can be filed. Employment law covers an immense number of legal issues and has many complexities. It is always advisable to speak with an experienced employment law attorney in order to discuss your concerns and any potential legal action. In addition, many employment issues may fall under state as well as federal law and an attorney can help advise you on the best course of action for your particular situation.