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A prime source of new jobs across the United States is the opening of new industrial plants—which accounted for millions of jobs a year during the 1970s and 1980s. But for every 110 jobs thus created, nearly 100 were lost annually in plant closings during that period. In the mid-1980s alone, 2.2 million plant jobs were lost each year. As serious as those losses were for the national economy, they were no less serious for the individuals who were let go. Surveys in the 1980s showed that large numbers of companies provided little or no notice to employees that their factories were to be shut down and their jobs eliminated. Nearly a quarter of businesses with more than 100 employees provided no specific notice to their employees that their particular work site would be closed or that they would suffer mass layoffs. More than half provided two weeks’ notice or less.
Because programs to support dislocated workers depend heavily on the giving of advance notice, a national debate on the issue in the late 1980s culminated in 1988 in Congress’s enactment of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, the formal name of the federal plant-closing act. Under this law, businesses with 100 or more employees must give employees or their local bargaining unit, along with the local city or county government, at least sixty days’ notice whenever (1) at least 50 employees in a single plant or office facility would lose their jobs or face long-term layoffs or a reduction of more than half their working hours as the result of a shutdown and (2) a shutdown would require long-term layoffs of 500 employees or at least a third of the workforce. An employer who violates the act is liable to employees for back pay that they would have received during the notice period and may be liable to other fines and penalties.
An employer is exempted from having to give notice if the closing is caused by business circumstances that were not reasonably foreseeable as of the time the notice would have been required. An employer is also exempted if the business is actively seeking capital or business that if obtained, would avoid or postpone the shutdown and the employer, in good faith, believes that giving notice would preclude the business from obtaining the needed capital or business.
Studies calling into question the reliability of various forms of lie detectors have led at least half the states and, in 1988, Congress to legislate against their use by private businesses. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act forbids private employers from using lie detectors (including such devices as voice stress analyzers) for any reason. Neither employees nor applicants for jobs may be required or even asked to submit to them. (The act has some exceptions for public employers, defense and intelligence businesses, private companies in the security business, and manufacturers of controlled substances.)
Use of polygraphs, machines that record changes in the subject’s blood pressure, pulse, and other physiological phenomena, is strictly limited. They may be used in conjunction with an investigation into such crimes as theft, embezzlement, and industrial espionage, but in order to require the employee to submit to polygraph testing, the employer must have “reasonable suspicion” that the employee is involved in the crime, and there must be supporting evidence for the employer to discipline or discharge the employee either on the basis of the polygraph results or on the employee’s refusal to submit to testing. The federal polygraph law does not preempt state laws, so if a state law absolutely bars an employer from using one, the federal law’s limited authorization will be unavailable.
In a heavily industrialized society, workplace safety is a major concern. Hundreds of studies for more than a century have documented the gruesome toll taken by hazardous working conditions in mines, on railroads, and in factories from tools, machines, treacherous surroundings, and toxic chemicals and other substances. Studies in the late 1960s showed that more than 14,000 workers were killed and 2.2 million were disabled annually—at a cost of more than $8 billion and a loss of more than 250 million worker days. Congress responded in 1970 with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the primary aim of which is “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.”
The act imposes on each employer a general duty to furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. It also gives the secretary of labor the power to establish national health and safety standards. The standard-making power has been delegated to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency within the US Department of Labor. The agency has the authority to inspect workplaces covered by the act whenever it receives complaints from employees or reports about fatal or multiple injuries. The agency may assess penalties and proceed administratively to enforce its standards. Criminal provisions of the act are enforced by the Justice Department.
During its first two decades, OSHA was criticized for not issuing standards very quickly: fewer than thirty national workplace safety standards were issued by 1990. But not all safety enforcement is in the hands of the federal government: although OSHA standards preempt similar state standards, under the act the secretary may permit the states to come up with standards equal to or better than federal standards and may make grants to the states to cover half the costs of enforcement of the state safety standards.
More than half the US workforce is covered by private pension plans for retirement. One 1988 estimate put the total held in pension funds at more than $1 trillion, costing the federal Treasury nearly $60 billion annually in tax write-offs. As the size of the private pension funds increased dramatically in the 1960s, Congress began to hear shocking stories of employees defrauded out of pension benefits, deprived of a lifetime’s savings through various ruses (e.g., by long vesting provisions and by discharges just before retirement). To put an end to such abuses, Congress, in 1974, enacted the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
In general, ERISA governs the vesting of employees’ pension rights and the funding of pension plans. Within five years of beginning employment, employees are entitled to vested interests in retirement benefits contributed on their behalf by individual employers. Multiemployer pension plans must vest their employees’ interests within ten years. A variety of pension plans must be insured through a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, to which employers must pay annual premiums. The corporation may assume financial control of underfunded plans and may sue to require employers to make up deficiencies. The act also requires pension funds to disclose financial information to beneficiaries, permits employees to sue for benefits, governs the standards of conduct of fund administrators, and forbids employers from denying employees their rights to pensions. The act largely preempts state law governing employee benefits.
In the midst of the Depression, Congress enacted at President Roosevelt’s urging a national minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). The act prohibits most forms of child labor and established a scale of minimum wages for the regular workweek and a higher scale for overtime. (The original hourly minimum was twenty-five cents, although the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor, a position created by the act, could raise the minimum rate industry by industry.) The act originally was limited to certain types of work: that which was performed in transporting goods in interstate commerce or in producing goods for shipment in interstate commerce.
Employers quickly learned that they could limit the minimum wage by, for example, separating the interstate and intrastate components of their production. Within the next quarter century, the scope of the FLSA was considerably broadened, so that it now covers all workers in businesses that do a particular dollar-volume of goods that move in interstate commerce, regardless of whether a particular employee actually works in the interstate component of the business. It now covers between 80 and 90 percent of all persons privately employed outside of agriculture, and a lesser but substantial percentage of agricultural workers and state and local government employees. Violations of the act are investigated by the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, who has authority to negotiate back pay on the employee’s behalf. If no settlement is reached, the Labor Department may sue on the employee’s behalf, or the employee, armed with a notice of the administrator’s calculations of back wages due, may sue in federal or state court for back pay. Under the FLSA, a successful employee will receive double the amount of back wages due.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, work-related injuries or illnesses have been covered under state workers’ compensation laws that provide a set amount of weekly compensation for disabilities caused by accidents and illnesses suffered on the job. The compensation plans also pay hospital and medical expenses necessary to treat workers who are injured by, or become ill from, their work. In assuring workers of compensation, the plans eliminate the hazards and uncertainties of lawsuits by eliminating the need to prove fault. Employers fund the compensation plans by paying into statewide plans or purchasing insurance.
Although it may appear that most employment law is federal, employment discrimination is largely governed by state law because Congress has so declared it. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 tells federal courts to defer to state agencies to enforce antidiscrimination provisions of parallel state statutes with remedies similar to those of the federal law. Moreover, many states have gone beyond federal law in banning certain forms of discrimination. Thus well before enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, more than forty states prohibited such discrimination in private employment. More than a dozen states ban employment discrimination based on marital status, a category not covered by federal law. Two states have laws that protect those that may be considered “overweight.” Two states and more than seventy counties or municipalities ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; most large companies have offices or plants in at least one of these jurisdictions. By contrast, federal law has no statutory law dealing with sexual orientation.
There are a number of important federal employment laws collective bargaining or discrimination. These include the federal plant-closing act, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. At the state level, workers’ compensation laws preempt common-law claims against employers for work-related injuries, and state equal opportunity employment laws provide remedies for certain kinds of workplace discrimination that have no parallel at the federal level.