If you own a business in New York and you have employees, you need to know about a variety of federal, state and municipal laws. These laws specify how you must pay wages, avoid discrimination and harassment, maintain a safe workplace, and otherwise manage the people who work for you. If you have a specific agreement with any of your employees, or are a party to a union contract or collective bargaining agreement, you may have additional obligations that are set out in those agreements.
You should consult with a lawyer to address the specific requirements for your business. Generally, though, there are at least five broad categories of employment-related laws you need to consider:
- Contract law: If there are any contracts between you or your business on the one hand, and an individual or group of employees on the other, many of your rights and responsibilities will be governed by those agreements.
- In New York, unless a contract governs a particular employee’s employment, he or she is said to be employed “at will.” This means that either you or the employee may end the employment relationship at any time (you, by firing the employee, or the employee, by quitting), for any reason (or no reason at all), as long as it is not a reason prohibited by law (e.g., discrimination on the basis of race, gender or religion);
- If you enter into an employment agreement with your employee for a specific period of time, that employee is not employed “at will.” The contract will control your relationship with that employee, including the time period of employment, the terms under which the employee works for you, and what, if any, grounds would permit you to fire the employee;
- If you have employees who are members of a union, the union contract or “collective bargaining agreement” will spell out many of the rights and responsibilities each of you has.
- Anti-Discrimination Laws: There are federal, state and city laws against discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability, pregnancy and age. New York State and New York City also bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These laws generally cover decisions regarding hiring, firing, promotions, pay, benefits and any other significant aspect of employment. For example:
- In deciding between or among applicants for a job, you may not choose whom to hire based upon race, gender, or any of the other criteria mentioned above. Similarly, you may not make decisions on firing employees, promoting them, or setting their pay on any of these grounds. The only exception is if the applicant’s age, religion or other protected characteristic is a “bona fide occupational qualification” (e.g., applicants for positions as priests may be required to be Catholic).
- Regarding harassment, neither you nor your employees may engage in behavior which makes another employee’s work environment hostile on the basis of their race, gender or other protected characteristic, or which conditions any aspect or benefit of their employment (e.g., a promotion) on their tolerance of, or participation in, inappropriate conduct.
- You must also make reasonable accommodations for employees’ disabilities, including pregnancy.
- You may also be responsible for actions and/or statements of your employees — particularly anyone with management responsibilities, if those actions and/or statements are discriminatory or harass another employee. This is particularly true if you know, or have reason to believe, that such harassment, or discrimination is occurring, and you fail to act to try to correct the problem.
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and New York Labor Law (NYLL): The FLSA and the New York Labor Law set wage, overtime pay, frequency-of-pay, recordkeeping, and other, similar requirements for employers.
- Some employees, particularly bona fide executives, professionals and some administrative employees may be “exempt” from some or all of the FLSA’s and/or NYLL’s requirements. Many employees, particularly those in lower-wage positions, are considered “non-exempt,” and this wage, overtime and recordkeeping rules apply to them.
- The FLSA determines who is exempt or non-exempt, though consultation with an attorney may be necessary to properly determine how to “classify” an employee who is not obviously in one or the other category.
- Employees who earn more than a certain amount per week may not be protected by certain aspects of the NYLL, and those who make more than a certain amount in tips in a given period of time may be subject to a different minimum wage under the FLSA.
- Under the FLSA, you may not hire someone under the age of 14 at all, and there is a limit to the number of hours you may require employees under the age of 16 to work.
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): If you have 50 or more people working for you, your business may be covered by the FMLA.
- Employees of such employers who have worked at least 1,250 hours over the previous twelve months must be permitted to take leave, of up to 12 weeks in total, on a continuous or intermittent basis, either for their own serious health condition, or to attend to the family or medical needs of others (like children, parents, etc.). Certain types of military leave are also protected by the FMLA.
- During such an employee’s leave, their health coverage must be maintained (if you would otherwise ordinarily have provided it as part of their employment), and they must be restored to their old (or an equivalent) position upon the conclusion of the FMLA leave, unless the employee would have been discharged without taking FMLA leave.
- No employee need be given greater rights or privileges as a result of taking FMLA leave, however, than he or she would have had without taking FMLA leave.
- Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA): This federal law requires that you provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” You must also follow all existing occupational safety and health rules and regulations.
Legal Editor: Eric M. Nelson, January 2015 (updated October 2018)
Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.