Your worker rights are protected under both Federal and state laws in the U.S. Although the federal government sets the minimum standard for employment including the minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws, states are allowed to formulate their own employee rights laws that include or expand upon the minimum protections afforded by the Federal laws.
California is one of the most employee-friendly states in the U.S. The state has laws that set strict limits on work hours and other provisions generally favorable to employees.
Employee rights laws are also called employment laws or labor laws. Employment laws deal mostly with employer-employee relationships, while labor laws deal primarily with employer-union relationships. Labor laws is the term most commonly used when generally referring to employment, labor and employee rights laws.
Your employee rights are protected by whichever law affords the most protection in your state. For example, if your state has its own minimum wage law and it mandates a higher rate than the Federal law, then employers doing business in your state must pay the higher minimum wage.
Your employee rights are also protected by sound morality and public policy.
What constitutes an employer’s breach of sound morality or public policy is typically up the interpretation of a court or arbitrator. For example, if your employer fires you because you wouldn’t break the law, a court might decide that you have a legit case for wrongful termination in contravention of public policy (or other legalese).
But there are no Federal employee rights laws that generally protect you from everything that’s unfair or unethical in the workplace. As indicated, laws also vary by state, and what constitutes a violation of sound morality or public policy is not set in concrete. Additionally, U.S. employers have their rights too. Consequently, what might seem unfair or unethical in the workplace is not necessarily unlawful.
For example, if your boss unfairly fires you, it’s not necessarily a breach of your employee rights by law. That’s because, in the absence of contracts that say otherwise, employment is presumed to be voluntary and indefinite under the Employment At-Will Doctrine, which most states enforce. In turn, your boss may fire you whenever he or she wants, just as you may quit whenever you want. But, if your boss fires you in retaliation for tactfully challenging his or her questionable overtime-pay practices, that’s a violation of your employee rights under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, if not an equivalent state law. You’ll likely have legal recourse, such as a lawsuit.
Independent contractors are typically not protected by employee rights laws. That’s because they are mostly self-employed. As such, they work for clients, not employers per se. (The same goes for consultants and freelancers.) Employee rights laws usually protect only employees and not self-employed individuals. However, other “rights” laws might apply, depending on the wrongdoings clients commit. For example, if a client breaches an independent contractor agreement, then laws that cover contracts might apply.
On the other hand, if employers misclassify employees as independent contractors, then employee rights laws might retroactively apply after misclassification is determined by the proper authorities.