Human resource professionals commonly wear more than one hat, especially at small and medium-sized organizations.
In addition to recruiting and onboarding employees and working to create a high-performing culture, HR professionals must also understand the rules and regulations that affect their organizations.
Understanding all of the federal laws and regulations can be overwhelming for some HR staff. We’ve compiled a list of essential HR rules that you need to know in this article.
What are the most important HR laws and regulations?
You need to be familiar with many rules and regulations as an HR professional. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it will put you in the right direction.
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 job discrimination. 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 are covered by 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 that you should be familiar with are:
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
- Made it illegal to discriminate against workers with a disability. It also requires employers to reasonably accommodate an otherwise qualified individual with a disability unless it would create an undue hardship
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
- Protects employees aged 40+ from age-based employment discrimination
- Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
- Protects employees from wage-based discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation for the same duties
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- This protects employees and job applicants from racial, color, religious, sexual, and ethnic discrimination. It also requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (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 1991 strengthened federal civil rights laws to allow jury trials and damage awards for intentional discrimination
- The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (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
You’ll also need to be aware of state or local workplace discrimination laws.
It's 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 an HR professional. Still, it’s also crucial for you and any hiring managers to understand what procedures and rules must be followed 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. It’s a good idea to have your questions planned out to ensure you don’t accidentally venture into one of those topics.
You’ll also need to be aware of proper procedures once you’ve selected a candidate. It’s not legal 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 Services (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 that we know today and created a national minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.
Subsequent amendments over the years have expanded workers’ rights.
Current 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: Employers must keep records of all wages, hours, and other Department of Labor recordkeeping regulations
- Providing break time for nursing mothers
Employee benefits regulations
Benefits are a great thing to offer to attract and retain employees. However, there are certain rules you must follow to be compliant in your benefit 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)
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, was enacted in 2010. It established advance premium tax credits, expanded Medicaid availability, and created the federal Health Insurance Marketplace.
The ACA also introduced an employer mandate for organizations with more than 50 employees.
All employers with more than 50 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) must provide insurance with minimum essential coverage (MEC) to at least 95% of full-time employees. An HRA can also satisfy this requirement if employees have individual health insurance coverage that meets MEC.
Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
ERISA sets federal standards for many retirement and health benefits that 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 allows employees and former employees who lose their health benefits to continue using the group health benefits provided under their group health plan for a certain period following a job loss, reduction in hours, death, divorce, or other life events.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants eligible employees to take unpaid leave for family and medical reasons with the continuation of their group health insurance coverage.
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 covered as active-duty military
- Twenty-six weeks during a year to care for a covered servicemember with a serious injury or illness
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, there are federal regulations that your organization must follow.
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 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 such as 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 professional documentation reviewers with benefits administration software.
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 webpage.
Your organization may also be subject to federal and state workers’ compensation laws depending on your location.
The Federal Employment Liability Act (FELA) established that any railroad company that engages in interstate commerce is liable for injuries to their employees resulting from company negligence. The Jones Act extended these 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.
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 laws and regulations will help keep your organization compliant, avoiding many headaches, fines, and potential legal action. While this article doesn’t cover every law or regulation that HR professionals need to know, we hope it provides a good starting point.
This blog article was originally published on December 22, 2014. It was last updated on May 10, 2022.