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Glossary of Labor Terms

The United States Department of Labor

…fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. In carrying out this mission, the Department administers a variety of Federal labor laws including those that guarantee workers' rights to safe and healthful working conditions; a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay; freedom from employment discrimination; unemployment insurance; and other income support.
With the introduction of H.R. 1119 — the "Family Time Flexibility Act" — many are arguing that new labor legislation is long overdue. Currently, the American workplace is governed by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which dates back to 1938. Studies show that working patterns have changed significantly since that time.

Unclear about some of the terms and titles of labor legislation? Consult our condensed labor glossary below or visit the linked sites for the fine print.

Child Labor Laws: Federal child labor laws protect young workers from employment that might interfere with their educational opportunities or be detrimental to their health or well- being. These laws stipulate that persons under the age of 18 can't work in jobs deemed hazardous by the Secretary of Labor, and restrict the hours and times employees younger than 16 years old may work. Youths under 14 may only work in jobs that are exempt from the child labor standards or not covered by the FLSA. (Exempt work includes: delivery of newspapers to consumers; performing in theatrical, motion picture, or broadcast productions; and work in a business owned by parents of the minor, except in manufacturing or hazardous occupations.)

When state child labor laws conflict with federal laws, the more stringent of the two takes precedence.

Fair Labor Standards Act (1938): The FLSA, enforced by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, protects over 80 million Americans, covering all workers who are engaged in or producing goods for interstate commerce or who are employed in certain enterprises. In 1938, this act set minimum wage, overtime, recordkeeping, and child labor standards. Learn more about the FLSA, Compliance Assistance — Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), or about State Labor Laws.

Family and Medical Leave Act (1993): In simplest terms, the FMLA allows covered employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for any of the four following reasons:

  • for the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee
  • for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care
  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition
  • or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
    The law and regulations are detailed here: Compliance Assistance — Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

    Minimum wage: In September 1997, the federal minimum wage was established at $5.15/hour. States often have their own minimum wages which take precedence when they are higher than the federal minimum. These laws differ slightly when applied to workers who receive tips, workers under the age of 20, and full-time students. For details on these, read the U.S. Department of Labor's Questions and Answers About the Minimum Wage.

    Overtime: When the FLSA established the 40-hour workweek in 1938, every hour over those 40 was defined as overtime, for which an employee must be paid 50 percent more per hour. Note that overtime protection does not apply to all employees — the FLSA exempts certain employees from the overtime pay provisions.

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