The United States has a federal system of government. This means that both states and the federal government regulate many types of activity, including commercial activity. Often, there are two sets of laws when it comes to employment, such as two sets of anti-discrimination law, minimum wage and overtime laws, etc.
Which one applies? Although federal and state laws are often similar, they sometimes contain key differences. Below is a basic framework for understanding the bascis of how state and federal laws interact.
Federal Law Provides Minimum Protections
Federal law provides only the bare minimum protection to workers. A good way to think of this is that federal law provides the “floor” below which no state can go when it comes to employee rights. But states are always free to provide greater protection to an employee than what federal law offers.
New Jersey has taken advantage of this freedom to give greater rights and protections to workers. For example, federal law requires a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. However, New Jersey currently has increased the amount of minimum wage in our state to $11.00 for most employees, with scheduled annual increases for the next few years. Other states are free to do the same, but they can’t go below $7.25.
New Jersey also went beyond baseline federal protections against discrimination by providing anti-discrimination protection to workers on the basis of sexual identity. Federal law is slowly catching up, but for years you could only bring lawsuits on behalf of gay or lesbian workers under New Jersey state law.
If you have an employment dispute, we look first to the federal law and then ask whether New Jersey has provided more rights to a client. If so, then we seek remedies under the state law.
Smaller Employers are Covered only by State Law
The federal government doesn’t have unlimited freedom to pass legislation that covers businesses. Instead, federal laws typically only apply to employers of a certain size. Congress passes these laws under its ability to regulate interstate commerce, and very small employers rarely impact commerce in any meaningful way. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, only applies to employers with at least 15 employees. If Congress tries to apply the law to smaller employers, then the Supreme Court might strike it down.
This means that smaller employers in New Jersey are only covered by our state law. For example, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination covers all employers, regardless of how small the business is.
Federal vs. NJ Employment Laws: How to Choose?
New Jersey sometimes provides greater protections to workers, but not always. For example, our state’s laws on work breaks closely track the federal labor laws. If you have a dispute where both laws apply, your attorney will determine with you how to best proceed.
For example, it is sometimes easier to get relief in a state or federal agency, depending on how swamped they are with cases. Federal and state courts also have key differences, which we can discuss with a client.
For help with your employment law dispute, give Sattiraju & Tharney a call to schedule an initial consultation.