Think employment laws don’t apply to remote workers? Think again. Many telecommuters are covered under the same federal protections as in-office staff. Therefore, both employers and employees need to know their rights and obligations to stay in compliance.
Federal Protections: 7 Laws That May Apply to Remote Workers
Disclaimer: Please note that this article in no way provides legal advice or guidance. The purpose of the article is to inform readers of employment legislation that may apply to remote workers.
Due to the demand for telecommuting jobs, employers have adapted their cultures and policies to offer more flexible schedules, remote work arrangements, and employment benefits that help staff balance career and life. But despite the maturity of a company’s culture, employers and employees are still subject to federal and state laws that protect the workforce and ensure all parties act justly.
As the gig economy expands, telecommuters need to understand that they don’t receive the same protections while working as independent contractors. Just as freelancers and moonlighters don’t expect to receive healthcare benefits or retirement plans as part of their contracts, they also shouldn’t expect much protection when they become pregnant, adopt a newborn baby, or take bereavement leave.
Additionally, as companies around the world hire workers from various countries, it’s imperative that employers and employees understand the boundaries and applicability of U.S. employment laws. For example, employees who work in the U.S. or its territories are generally covered under federal protections regardless if they work for a foreign employer. Of course, there are exceptions, and many protections fly out the window when employers hire staff as contractors.
If you’re a telecommuting employee (not an independent contractor) here’s a list of seven basic federal protections you’re probably entitled to regardless of your work location.
1. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets requirements for minimum wage, overtime, recordkeeping, and employment of minors.
As of 2009, which is the year of the last minimum wage increase, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. However, individual states have the authority the set their own minimum wage requirements. State minimum wages are typically greater than or equal to the federal minimum wage, and employees are entitled to the higher of the two.
Some employees are considered “exempt,” which means they are not covered under FLSA. For exempt employees, employers do not have to adhere to federal minimum wage standards. Exempt employees include those who earn a salary instead of hourly pay.
For “nonexempt” employees, the law requires employers to pay staff at least the federal minimum wage plus overtime pay when an employee works more than 40 hours in one workweek. Overtime pay equates to at least one and one-half times the regular pay rate.
FLSA and Remote Workers
Many employers offer flexible schedules along with remote work options. The problem is that telecommuters can log hours at their leisure, and employers may perceive their remote workers to be available round the clock. Therefore, to avoid any FLSA issues, employers must be careful to cap weekly hours and establish and enforce hours and overtime rules.
Likewise, remote workers need to track their time diligently and have evidence ready to prove that they needed to work over their allotted hours and are, therefore, entitled to overtime pay.
As the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises, employers should always document a “statement of understanding” that establishes remote work expectations and agreements, as well as a “safe harbor policy” to give employees the responsibility of telling employers when they are owed compensation.
2. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees’ job security and healthcare coverage when they need to take time off to care for a newborn child, newly adopted child, or a spouse, parent, or child with a serious medical condition.
Extended leave consists of up to 12 unpaid weeks within a single year, though some employers offer paid leave and additional perks as part of their employee benefits package. FMLA also entitles 26 weeks of unpaid military caregiver leave to employees who are a spouse, parent, child, or next of kin of a military member with a serious health condition. To be eligible, employees have to work at a company for at least one year.
Aside from securing continued healthcare coverage, the purpose of the legislation is to prevent employees from losing their jobs or getting demoted after returning from extended leave for covered family and medical reasons. However, employers may still alter employment arrangements to meet their business needs so long as they have a valid reason with evidence to support the changes. Employees can always contest any changes in court, but they need hard proof that their leave directly relates to their employment modifications.
Keep in mind that not all employers are covered (or have to abide) by FMLA. For example, private companies with less than 50 employees aren’t required to adhere to FMLA federal protections.
FMLA and Remote Workers
Remote employees who work at least one year for a company with at least 50 employees are generally entitled to FMLA protections. Employers may offer supplemental benefits, such as six weeks of paid leave and flexible or part-time hours while transitioning back. Though FMLA provides healthcare and employment protection, employers are generally allowed to reallocate job responsibilities even when workers return to their positions, so long as such reallocations are justifiable. Additionally, employees can always renegotiate their responsibilities with their employers and agree upon a plan that satisfies everyone.
3. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents employers from discriminating against qualified workers with disabilities. It also offers telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation to expand the workforce and prevent qualified professionals from getting denied employment opportunities.
Though employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations, whether they are at a company office or through remote work environments, employers still have the right to protect their businesses so that they don’t inflict “undue hardship” upon the company.
However, employers aren’t allowed to ask for details about a candidate’s disability or evidence to prove a disability. Employers are only allowed to assess an individual and require any medical examinations to ensure an employee’s ability to perform their job duties. Any medical information that employers collect is considered strictly confidential.
ADA and Remote Workers
The ADA includes provisions for telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities. However, employers who have deemed remote work as infeasible for a particular position or job responsibility are generally allowed to deny employees remote work options regardless of disability status. As Bloomberg Law reports, employers aren’t afraid to fire back when employees file lawsuits after being denied remote work arrangements. Therefore, telecommute jobseekers need to be mindful of the feasibility of remote work for the jobs to which they apply and focus on employers who prioritize telecommuting as a normal part of their business.
Additionally, employees with disabilities who strictly apply for remote work positions do not necessarily have to declare their disabilities during the hiring process. For example, if a job is already posted as 100% telecommute, and the applicant is clearly qualified and capable of fulfilling the job responsibilities, there may be no reason for an employee to announce their disability.
4. Equal Pay Act
The Equal Pay Act requires employers to pay women and men equally according to their “job content.”
In other words, employers can’t discriminate against women or men in terms of pay if their jobs are “substantially equal” and they exhibit “substantially equal skill” and other criteria. However, employers are still allowed to pay women and men differently based on factors unrelated to sex, such as their roles in the company, job responsibilities, and seniority.
Equal Pay Act and Remote Workers
Though in-office employees may claim, “I’d be willing to take a pay cut if I could work remotely,” no qualified professional has to settle for less than they’re worth. Women and men who work remotely are covered under the Equal Pay Act and can expect employers to compensate them equally based on sex. Of course, remote workers can still expect to be paid based on their skill levels, job responsibilities, and rank within the organization.
5. Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prevents employers from discriminating against workers who are at least 40 years old.
For example, employers can’t deny employment, promotions, or benefits because of age, and they can’t mandate retirement solely based on age.
ADEA and Remote Workers
Telecommuting isn’t a young persons’ game. As the working population ages, more professionals remain in the workforce and prefer to transition to telecommuting to help balance career and life. Additionally, employers need seasoned professionals to help solidify their operations and secure their futures.
Under the ADEA, companies can’t make employment decisions strictly based on age. Still, certain cultures may find it challenging to blend multiple generations in a remote workspace, given their preconceptions of each generation’s abilities and values. Regardless of the year employees were born, all generations add value to the workplace and can transition to telecommuting just fine with a supportive team.
6. Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that forbids “sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy” for employers with at least 15 employees.
The act classifies pregnant women as temporarily disabled, which bans employers from discriminating against pregnant women or failing to provide reasonable accommodations. Similar to FLMA, the law protects employees from losing healthcare coverage during their temporary condition.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Remote Workers
Women in the remote workforce who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant are generally protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. However, telecommuters must use caution when using this legislation to justify workplace accommodations. Many women who have filed claims against their employers lost their cases because the courts did not deem pregnancy as justifiable or as the real underlying issue.
7. Workers’ Compensation
Workers’ compensation helps cover costs associated with workplace injuries and illnesses. Such costs may include medical care and treatment, wage replacement during recovery, and rehabilitation.
Each state has its own workers’ compensation program, and the federal government has a program for federal employees. Companies may purchase additional insurance to cover costs for their employees and businesses.
Workers’ Compensation and Remote Workers
Telecommuters are covered under workers’ compensation laws within the state where they reside and work. However, since remote jobs afford flexibility in work hours and location, it may be challenging to prove that a workplace injury or illness is a direct result of employment. To help determine what constitutes a workplace injury or illness, employees usually need defined work schedules and job duties that are covered under the protection.
Nonetheless, telecommuters should know their rights and what they are allowed to claim. For example, what happens when remote workers fall and become injured in their own homes during their regularly scheduled work hours? It’s possible that their employers are liable for such injuries, especially if they haven’t established any policies on workplace safety for telecommuters.
As the telecommuting workforce increases, employers must be aware of their role in protecting their employees’ rights. Likewise, remote professionals should understand that they are generally entitled to the same protections as in-office staff. We hope this list serves as a baseline for remote professionals to consider how federal protections can impact their telecommuting careers.
Which additional federal protections should remote workers know? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to tell us about other federal protections telecommuting professionals should consider. We’d love to hear from you!
iStock Photo Credit: 1. chatsimo; 2. greenleaf123; 3. jacoblund
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