The FLSA, or Fair Labor Standards Act, is a set of federal labor laws. Passed originally in 1938, but amended many times since them, the FLSA outlines the basic rights of US workers.
These aren’t guidelines or recommendations, they’re employment laws and violating the FLSA is illegal.
FLSA: Defining Workers Rights
The FLSA defines a number of things:
- a federal minimum wage
- overtime wages
- how and how much children can work
- what “work” actually is
- what to do when you’re rights are violated
- people who aren’t entitled to the FLSA’s wage and hour protections
We’ll cover each of these laws in turn.
1. Minimum Wage
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Many states have higher minimum wages, and the FLSA says that workers in those states are entitled to the more generous rate.
Employees who make more than $30 every month in tips must be paid no less than $2.13 per hour in base cash wages.
Apprentice Minimum Wage
Apprenticeships are programs in which people learn a skill or trade by working; sometimes, they’re sold as “earn-and-learn” programs.
To be governed by the FLSA’s rules, an apprenticeship program has be registered with the Department of Labor or another federally-recognized state agency. In that case, apprentices are entitled to the federal or state minimum wage, right from the beginning of their training.
As their skills improve, apprentices are entitled to pay increases. A full-time professional is usually used as the standard upon which these increases in wage are judged; so if an apprentice is able to perform 1/2 the work a professional can, they must be paid 1/2 a professional’s wage or salary.
Those pay increases are mandatory, required by federal law.
2. Overtime Pay
The FLSA’s overtime regulations define one workweek as a period of 168 consecutive hours, or seven consecutive 24-hour days. It doesn’t matter whether your workweek starts on Monday or Wednesday or Saturday, but your overtime must be calculated based on that specific week.
Federal law sets no limit on the amount of hours an employer requires out of a worker, although some state laws do. But for any hours over 40, you deserve, and are legally entitled, to overtime pay.
3. Federal Child Labor Laws
People under the age of 18 are expressly prohibited from working in occupations deemed hazardous by the US Secretary of Labor, like the manufacturing of explosives and coal mining. For a more complete list, along with exceptions that may apply, visit YouthRules!
What Kind Of Work Can Children Do?
There are certain jobs that workers of any age are allowed to perform:
- delivering newspapers
- performing in radio, TV, movie or theater productions
- working in businesses owned by their parents (unless they’ve been deemed hazardous)
- minor chores around a private home
For most work (outside of agriculture, which is governed by its own complex set of rules), 14 is the absolute minimum age of employment.
14 and 15 year olds are allowed to work in:
- retail establishments
- creative or traditionally “intellectual” work, like computer programming or tutoring
- running errands
- landscaping, but they can’t use power mowers, weedwhackers or other potentially-dangerous equipment
- some tasks in food service, like washing dishes and reheating food
- some grocery work, like cleaning vegetables, wrapping and labeling items and stocking, but not around freezers or meat coolers
- loading and unloading manual tools, like shovels and rakes, at a work-site
For a longer list of permitted labor, click here.
Hours For Children
Federal law doesn’t limit the amount of hours people can work once they’re 16 or older. But 14 and 15 year olds can only work outside school hours, and there are limits on the number of hours they can work:
- School days: 3 hours
- School weeks: 18 hours
- Non-school day: 8 hours
- Non-school week: 40 hours
Workers either 14 or 15 can only work between 7 am and 7 pm.
Minimum Youth Wage
Many people assume there’s a different minimum wage for 16 or 18 year olds. There is, but only for limited training periods, and some states prohibit this.
Under the FLSA, workers under 20 can be paid a wage no less than $4.25 per hour, but only for the first 90 calendar days of their employment. After 90 days, including weekends and other days not actually worked, they’re entitled to the full state or federal minimum wage.
It’s illegal for an employer to fire or transfer one worker to hire a youth trainee who costs less.
4. What Is Work?
It might seem odd that the FLSA provides a formal definition of “work,” but this definition turns out to be extremely important.
First, employees are entitled to compensation for all of the hours they work. So what’s work in the first place? For a basic explanation, the Department of Labor says work is:
“all time an employee must be on duty, or on the employer’s premises or at any other prescribed place of work, from the beginning of the first principal activity of the work day to the end of the last principal work activity of the workday.”
That sounds pretty simple. But note that the “first or last principal activity of the work day” doesn’t necessarily coincide with the beginning or ending of your scheduled shift.
Numerous successful wage and hour lawsuits have been filed by call center employees who weren’t paid for turning on their computers, because they did so before their shift officially started. Courts routinely rule this a violation of the FLSA.
What Does “Suffer Or Permit To Work” Mean?
To find out why, we need to look at the second, more powerful definition of “work” provided by federal law:
“any additional time the employee is allowed (i.e., suffered or permitted) to work.”
In other words, your employer doesn’t have to explicitly request that you perform a task; as long as they allow you to do it, that time is most likely work.
Here’s a simple two-step test to know if what you’re doing is work:
- does your employer know or have reason to believe that you’re working?
- is your employer benefiting from whatever you’re doing?
If so, you’re probably still working, even if you’re technically “off the clock.”
5. What To Do When You’re The Victim Of Wage Theft
After defining your rights as an American worker, the FLSA sets out two avenues for employees who believe those rights have been violated:
But nothing will happen unless you take action. To learn more about your own situation, contact our unpaid overtime attorneys.
Is There A Statute Of Limitations?
The FLSA gives you two years from the date your employer violated your wage and hour rights or retaliated against you for asserting your rights to file a lawsuit.
6. Who’s Entitled To The FLSA’s Protection?
The overwhelming majority of workers are entitled to all the wage and hour protections we’ve discussed so far.
But some employees are defined as “exempt” by federal law and they aren’t entitled to the minimum wage and overtime pay.
Generally, FLSA exemptions fall under three categories:
- independent contractors
- “white collar exemptions” that require a set salary of $23,600 per year and certain job duties
- specific jobs
To learn whether you’re covered, follow the link and take our FLSA exemption test.
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