Professionals in human resource management commonly wear many hats, especially at small and medium-sized organizations. In addition to recruiting and onboarding employees, maintaining company policy, and creating a high-performing culture, HR professionals must also understand the rules and regulations affecting their organizations.
Understanding federal employment laws and regulations can be overwhelming for some HR staff. To help, we've compiled a list of essential human resources rules you need to know.
What are the most important HR laws and regulations?
As an HR professional, you need to be familiar with many rules and regulations. While this isn't an exhaustive list, it will point you toward compliant business practices.
Legal topics every HR professional should know include:
- Workplace discrimination laws
- Hiring and onboarding procedures
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
- Employee benefits regulations
- Keeping employee information private
- Workplace safety laws
We'll break down each of these topics in more detail in the following sections.
Workplace discrimination laws
One of the most important legal topics every human resource department should know is workplace discrimination laws.
Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws protect workers from discriminatory practices. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) monitors and enforces federal laws around job discrimination based on a person's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.
Organizations with at least 15 employees must comply with EEOC laws, which apply to all work situations.
Many federal laws are part of the EEO that your organization needs to adhere to.
Federal workplace discrimination laws
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)1
The ADA made it illegal to discriminate against workers with disabilities. It also requires employers to reasonably accommodate otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities unless it would create an undue hardship.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)2
The ADEA protects employees aged 40+ from age-based employment discrimination.
Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)3
The EPA protects employees from wage-based discrimination based on their sexual orientation for the same duties.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 19644
This law protects employees and job applicants from racial, color, religious, sexual, and ethnic discrimination. It also requires employers to accommodate employees' religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an undue hardship.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA)5
The PDA amended Title VII to protect pregnant workers from discrimination in the workplace. It also made it illegal for organizations to retaliate against someone who complains or files a charge of discrimination.
The Civil Rights Act of 19916
This act strengthened federal civil rights laws to allow jury trials and damage awards for intentional discrimination.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA)7
GINA made it illegal to discriminate against employees or job applicants because of genetic information. This includes genetic test information or any information about diseases, disorders, or family medical history.
In addition to these federal laws, you'll need to be aware of state or local workplace discrimination laws for your area. It's also a good idea to have a policy in place for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.
Hiring and onboarding procedures
Hiring is an exciting part of your role as a human resources professional. Still, it's also crucial for you and any hiring managers to understand what procedures and rules to follow during the hiring and onboarding processes.
For instance, you can't ask questions that reveal a person's race, gender, religion, marital status, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, or age on an application or during an interview. This information could lead to biases and discrimination in the hiring process. Planning out your questions is a good idea to ensure you don't accidentally venture into one of those topics.
You'll also need to know the proper procedures once you've selected a candidate. It's illegal to hire an individual residing in the United States undocumented. You need to verify each employee's identity and employment eligibility by having them complete Form I-9 provided by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services8 (USCIS).
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
Your role as an HR professional also relies on knowledge of federal requirements for working conditions and pay required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The FLSA was first passed and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. This established the 40-hour workweek we know today and created a national minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.
Subsequent amendments over the years have expanded employee rights.
Current federal regulations under the FLSA include:
- Paying all employees at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. If a state has a higher minimum wage, employers must pay the higher amount
- Nonexempt employees must receive overtime pay for hours worked over 40 hours per week at 1.5 times their regular hourly rate
- Child labor laws and restrictions on what jobs a minor can have
- Record keeping of all wages, hours, and other U.S. Department of Labor recordkeeping regulations
- Providing break time for nursing mothers
Some states have stricter regulations on child labor regulations, pay, and providing meal breaks.
Employee benefits regulations
Benefits are essential to attract and retain employees. Offering a comprehensive benefits package gives you a competitive advantage, especially in a tight labor market. However, there are certain rules you must follow to be compliant with your benefits offerings, particularly with health benefits.
HR professionals need to be aware of the following regulations and types of benefits:
- Affordable Care Act (ACA)
- Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
- Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA)
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- Health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs)
Affordable Care Act (ACA)
Congress enacted the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, in 2010. It established advance premium tax credits, expanded Medicaid availability, and created the federal Health Insurance Marketplace.
The ACA also introduced the employer mandate for organizations with more than 50 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs).
All business owners with more than 50 FTEs must provide health benefits with minimum essential coverage (MEC) to at least 95% of full-time employees. A health reimbursement arrangement—or HRA—can also satisfy this requirement if employees have individual health insurance coverage that meets MEC.
The IRS penalizes organizations that don’t follow the employer mandate.
Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
ERISA sets federal standards for many retirement and health benefits your organization can offer employees. It requires plans to provide all participants with their plan's features and funding, the standards for participation, vesting schedules, and accrual schedules.
COBRA offers continued health insurance coverage to former employees and their qualifying dependents who lose their health benefits. They and their families can continue using the group health benefits provided under their group health plan for a certain period following a job loss, reduction in hours, death of the employee, divorce, or other life events.
All organizations with at least 20 employees in the previous calendar year must offer COBRA.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The Family and Medical Leave Act9 (FMLA) grants eligible employees the right to take job-protected unpaid leave for family and medical reasons with the continuation of their group health coverage.
FMLA applies to all organizations with 50 or more employees. All public agencies and schools must also provide this benefit.
Employees at covered employers are entitled to FMLA for:
- Twelve weeks in a year
- For the birth of a child, placement of a child in adoption or foster care, or to care for a spouse or children with serious health conditions
- If the employee is unable to work due to a medical condition
- The employee's spouse, parent, or child is a covered active-duty military servicemember. Employees may use FMLA to care for their family member’s serious injury or illness.
- Twenty-six weeks during a year to care for a covered servicemember with a serious injury or illness
Some states require paid family medical leave. Be sure to check the laws in your state so you can remain compliant.
If your organization provides health benefits, you'll need to become familiar with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. HIPAA helps keep protected health information (PHI) safe. This includes names, Social Security numbers, medical records, and more.
If you deal with or come into contact with PHI, you're subject to HIPAA rules. Employers and employees can't use or disclose PHI except as permitted under the law or if the individual authorizes the use of their PHI in writing.
HIPAA violations can result in fines of up to $50,000 per violation.
If you offer an HRA to your employees, you must follow regulations at the state and federal levels.
If you offer an individual coverage HRA (ICHRA) or an integrated HRA, you can offer different reimbursement amounts for various job classifications. However, you can't use employee classes to discriminate against an individual based on race, gender, or other non-employment-based factors.
If you offer a qualified small employer HRA (QSEHRA), you must be aware that a QSEHRA is only eligible for organizations with fewer than 50 FTEs.
An ICHRA also requires that employees have individual health insurance that meets MEC.
No matter which HRA you have, you'll need to be sure that you're only reimbursing employees for qualifying medical care expenses that are listed under IRS Publication 502 for your HRA to be tax-advantaged. This involves asking for receipts or bills to reimburse employees for their medical expenses and health insurance premiums, which subjects your organization to HIPAA.
One way to ensure that your HRA is compliant is to use a third-party benefit administration software like PeopleKeep. With our HRA and WorkPerks employee stipend platforms, you can offer HRAs or health stipends to your employees with ease.
You can keep employee PHI confidential by relying on our professional documentation reviewers. That way, you never come into contact with your employees’ medical information.
Many employee benefits, such as retirement plans and HRAs, require annual non-discrimination testing. This determines whether a benefits plan is fair to all employees instead of only highly-compensated or key employees.
Time off benefits
While not a federal requirement, many states require your organization to offer time off benefits such as paid sick leave and vacation time. Be sure to check with your state's labor department to see what the current rules for time off are.
Keeping employee information private and confidential
In addition to PHI, you'll likely come into contact with other employee information as an HR professional.
Your employees are required to provide personal information to be employed. This can include Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers or scans, home addresses, phone numbers, and more.
You must keep this information discrete and protected. If you become privy to sensitive information, you cannot disclose it to anyone.
Workplace safety laws
The final HR rules category we'll cover in this article is workplace safety laws. Through the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), federal law protects employees from health and safety hazards.
Under OSHA, employees have the right to:
- Receive workplace safety training
- Work on safe machinery
- Be provided with required safety equipment such as gloves
- Be protected from toxic chemicals
- Request an OSHA inspection of your workplace
- Report any injuries or illness in the workplace
- Review records of work-related injuries
- See the results of any OSHA inspections or tests at your workplace
To see the complete list of OSHA rights and regulations, see the Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws and regulations webpage10.
Depending on your location, your organization may also be subject to state workers' compensation laws.
The Federal Employment Liability Act (FELA) established that any railroad company engaged in interstate commerce is liable for employee injuries resulting from company negligence. The Jones Act extended these legal protections to sailors as well.
The Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA) provides workers' compensation to private maritime workers.
It's best to check with your state to see if workers' compensation is required for your organization.
Other workplace safety considerations
In addition to OSHA and workers' compensation, a human resources professional has many other workplace safety considerations.
Your employee handbook should address how your organization handles workplace violence, what your emergency procedures are, and employee conduct policies. This will help ensure your workforce knows what's expected of them and what they should do in the event of an emergency.
Understanding workplace discrimination laws, hiring and onboarding procedures, the FLSA, employee benefits regulations, how to keep employee information private, and workplace safety laws are vital to the success of any organization.
Knowing these critical human resource laws and regulations will help keep your organization compliant, avoiding many headaches, fines, and potential legal issues. While this article doesn't cover every law or regulation that HR professionals need to know, we hope it provides a good starting point.
Human resource professionals carry a heavy load. With so many tasks to manage, administering employee benefits is just another task to add to your plate. Thankfully, PeopleKeep can help! Our HRA and employee stipend administration software makes it easy to set up and manage personalized benefits in minutes each month.
This blog article was originally published on December 22, 2014. It was last updated on July 18, 2023.
Chase Charaba is the content marketing manager at PeopleKeep. He started with the company as a content marketing specialist in early 2022. Chase has written more than 350 blog posts for various companies and personal projects throughout his career. He’s worked for digital marketing agencies, in-house marketing teams, and as the editor for national award-winning high school and college newspapers. He’s also a YouTuber, landscape photographer, and small business owner.