The history of American labor involves a tension between these two sets of values -- flexibility and long-term commitment. Since the mid-1980s, many analysts agree, employers have put more emphasis on flexibility. Perhaps as a result, the bonds between employers and employees have become weaker. Still, a wide range of state and federal laws protect the rights of workers. Some of the most important federal labor laws include the following.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 sets national minimum wages and maximum hours individuals can be required to work. It also sets rules for overtime pay and standards to prevent child-labor abuses. In 1963, the act was amended to prohibit wage discrimination against women. Congress adjusts the minimum wage periodically, although the issue often is politically contentious. In 1999, it stood at $5.15 per hour, although the demand for workers was so great at the time that many employers -- even those who hired low-skilled workers -- were paying wages above the minimum. Some individual states set higher wage floors.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 establishes that employers cannot discriminate in hiring or employment practices on the basis of race, sex, religion, and national origin (the law also prohibits discrimination in voting and housing).
The Age and Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects older workers against job discrimination.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1971 requires employers to maintain safe working conditions. Under this law, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) develops workplace standards, conducts inspections to assess compliance with them, and issues citations and imposes penalties for noncompliance.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, sets standards for pension plans established by businesses or other nonpublic organizations. It was enacted in 1974.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees employees unpaid time off for childbirth, for adoption, or for caring for seriously-ill relatives.
The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, assures job rights for handicapped persons.
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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.