The Basics of US Employment Law Part I: Protected Class Discrimination at the Federal, State, and Local Levels

For the next few weeks I will be doing a blog series on some of the key elements of United States employment law and how they differ from European employment law. This blog series is meant to familiarize Europeans (and others) who may be breaking into the US market and employing people in the United States. Topics covered in this series will include whether and how employees can be fired, vacation time, group benefit plans, and overtime pay.

Employment law in the United States is quite different than in most European countries. In general, the laws in Europe are considered much more protective of employees. For example, it is generally more difficult to fire an employee in most European countries than it is in the United States. While this may appear to benefit European employees, there is a flip side: an employer who does not have the ability to easily fire someone, may be more reluctant to hire in the first place, making the job market more competitive for employees. When employees are less willing to leave one job in search for another, the result is a more stagnant job market. While this may be great for people with good jobs, it may not be so great for those trying to break into the job market or make career changes. Proponents of United States employment law might argue that our less restrictive employment laws create a more productive work force as well as more job opportunities for the American worker. However, this blog series is not meant to be a commentary on the merits of one country’s employment laws over another’s. The purpose of this series is to explore some of the core principles of United States employment law.

One of the first concepts to understanding employment law in the United States is to understand that employment law is governed by both federal and state law. Accordingly, an employer located in Pennsylvania will be governed by both Pennsylvania employment law and United States federal law. In addition to state laws, there may be additional laws and ordinances for the city or township in which your business is located. While cities and states have a significant amount of authority to govern the laws that employers and employees are subject to, there are certain federal laws that trump any state or local law. The general rule of thumb is that while state and local laws can and often do provide additional protections for employees, state and local laws are not going to be less protective of employees than federal law.

One of the most notable categories of federal laws that apply to all employers and employees regardless of the state in which the business is located are the laws that protect employees against discrimination on the basis of certain protected classifications. These classifications include race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, and age. Accordingly, no state law can permit an employer to fire an employee, or chose not to hire a job applicant, on the basis of any of these protected classifications. State and local law can, and often do, go further and provide additional protections to employees. For example, while federal law does not prohibit private employers from discriminating against an employee on the basis of sexual orientation, many states and cities have enacted such prohibitions. Pennsylvania does not include sexual orientation in its listing of protected classes, but the City of Philadelphia (along with Pittsburgh and several other Pennsylvania cities) does prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The next blog will examine the concept of employment at will.