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FLSA Reference Guide: Wage Basics and Worker Protections

Navigating employment and labor laws can be as complex as it is crucial, particularly when it comes to understanding the basics of wages and employee protection. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a pivotal piece of federal legislation that lays the foundation for workers' rights to fair pay. It establishes minimum wage and overtime pay requirements, including entitlement to those pay protections.

The FLSA applies to full-time and part-time private sector workers and public employers such as the federal, state, and local governments. The FLSA does not cover independent contractors.

The following is a general overview of wage basics and employee protections under federal law. Keep in mind that many states offer more protections for their employees, including higher minimum wage requirements.

Minimum Wage

The FLSA contains federal minimum wage provisions. As of 2023, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Only Congress can change the federal wage rate. However, many states, cities, and counties have wage laws and may have set a higher minimum wage

For example, in Maryland, the minimum wage will be $15 starting January 2024 under state law. On the other hand, Alabama doesn't have a state minimum wage, so Alabama employers subject to the FLSA must pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In general, you must be paid the more generous minimum wage.

In some instances, an employer can pay a lesser hourly wage. Employers can pay workers who receive tips $2.13 an hour. If tips fall short of averaging at least the minimum wage in a given pay period, the employer must pay up to minimum wage.

Young workers also qualify for a lower minimum wage rate. In what some call “training pay," employers can pay workers under 20 years old an hourly rate of $4.25 during the first 90 days of employment.

Overtime Pay

The FLSA includes overtime provisions. The law mandates that employers pay overtime compensation when the number of hours an employee works in a workweek exceeds more than 40. Overtime pay is one-and-one-half times a worker's regular rate of pay. A workweek under federal law is any consecutive seven-day period of time.

You should check local and state laws. In some states, a rule requires employers to pay overtime if an employee works more than eight or 10 hours in a single day.

Public sector workers, such as police and firefighters, can get compensatory time (comp time) instead of a cash payment for working overtime hours.

Exempt vs. Nonexempt Employees

Some employees, generally those paid an annual salary and earning more than a certain amount, are exempt and not protected by the FLSA's minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. This means exempt employees are not entitled to overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week.

The most common exemptions are for bona fide positions that qualify as:

  • Executive jobs
  • Administrative jobs
  • Professional jobs
  • Outside sales

To determine whether workers are exempt under federal law, employers must consider the worker's salary and job duties. Employees must be paid on a salary basis and earn more than $684 per week. Once employees meet the salary basis test and salary threshold, their job duties must be examined against U.S. Department of Labor standards for determining exemptions.

Child Employment

Children must be at least 16 to work in most non-farm jobs, 18 for non-farm jobs considered hazardous, such as driving a motor vehicle or mining activity. The FLSA does not apply to children working as actors, delivering newspapers, or making natural wreaths at home. There are far fewer restrictions on the hiring of minors as farm workers. For instance, children as young as 10 or 11 may help as hands to harvest labor with a waiver by the DOL.

Equal Pay Protection

The FLSA also forbids wage discrimination based on sex by requiring that men and women in the same workplace receive equal pay for equal work. The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 is an employment and labor law that is part of the FLSA.

Protections for Nursing Mothers

The FLSA doesn't mandate rest breaks or meal periods, although some state laws require such breaks. However, it does require that employers provide reasonable break time for nursing mothers to express breast milk for their infant children. In addition, employers must provide a private space, other than a bathroom, for this purpose.

Protection Against Retaliation

The FLSA provides strong protections against retaliation for employees who assert their rights under the law. Employers can't retaliate against you when you engage in protected activities, such as complaining directly to your employer, filing a complaint with the authorities, alleging a violation, or otherwise asserting your rights under the FLSA.

If retaliation occurs, you can file a complaint for retaliation with the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division or pursue a private lawsuit.

Enforcement and Recovery of Back Wages

The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) investigates FLSA complaints. WHD enforces the law and may order fines, payment of back wages, job reinstatement, and other remedies, including changes that bring the employer into compliance with the law.

Get a Legal Evaluation of Your FLSA-Related Matter

The Fair Labor Standards Act provides a baseline of protection for employees, including fair wages and reasonable working hours. If you believe your rights have been violated or have questions about your eligibility, you may want to speak with an experienced employment law attorney near you.

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