Employment Law

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The body of law that governs the employer-employee relationship, including individual employment contracts, the application of TORT and contract doctrines, and a large group of statutory regulation on issues such as the right to organize and negotiate collective bargaining agreements, protection from discrimination, wages and hours, and health and safety.

Beyond establishing an economic relationship between employer and employee, work provides a powerful structure for organizing social and cultural life. The employment relationship is more than the exchange of labor for money. In U.S. society, self-worth, dignity, satisfaction, and accomplishment are often achieved by one's employment responsibilities, performance, and rewards. The development of employment law demonstrates the importance of work. Since the 1930s, employees have acquired more legal rights as federal and state governments

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have enacted laws that give them the power and authority to unionize, to engage in COLLECTIVE BARGAINING, and to be protected from discrimination based on race, gender, or disability.


English COMMON LAW, and subsequently early U.S. law, defined the relationship between an employer and an employee as that of MASTER AND SERVANT. The master-and-servant relationship arose only when the tasks performed by the servant were under the direction and control of the master and were subject to the master's knowledge and consent.

Company Obligations to Work-at-Home Employees

The purpose of the OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT OF 1970 (OSH Act), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 651 et seq, is to "assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions." (Section 2(b)). The OSH Act applies to a private employer who has any employees doing work in a workplace in the United States. It requires these employers to provide employment and a place of employment that are free from recognized, serious hazards, and to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) standards and regulations (Sections 4 and 5 of the OSH Act). By regulation, OSHA does not cover individuals who, in their own residences, employ persons for the purpose of performing domestic household tasks.

OSHA has never conducted inspections of home offices, and such an inspection would, in fact, be contrary to OSHA policy. OSHA will not hold employers liable for employees' home offices and does not expect employers to inspect the home offices of their employees. If OSHA receives a complaint about a home office, the complainant will be advised of OSHA policy. If an employee makes a specific request, OSHA may informally let employers know of complaints about home office conditions but will not follow-up with the employer or employee.

OSHA will, however, conduct inspections of other home-based worksites, such as home manufacturing operations, when OSHA receives a complaint or referral that indicates that a violation of a safety or health standard exists that threatens physical harm or that an imminent danger exists, including reports of a work-related fatality. The scope of the inspection in an employee's home will be limited to the employee's work activities. Employers are responsible in home worksites for hazards caused by materials, equipment, or work processes which the employer provides or requires to be used in an employee's home.

In April 2001 the Bush administration announced plans to call for an amendment to the Occupational Safety and Health Act to preclude home office inspections when employees primarily work on the telephone, computer, and/or with other electronic devices. As part of the administration's larger New Freedom Initiative, the move was intended to help disabled workers buy computers and other equipment needed to work at home, without OSHA intervention, in return for tax incentives to encourage employers to provide such equipment.


Bureau of National Affairs. 1975. Occupational Safety and Health Cases. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs.

Lave, Lester B. 1982. Quantitative Risk Assessment in Regulation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute.

Lofgren, Don J. 1989. Dangerous Premises: An Insider's View of OSHA Enforcement. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.


Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

With the rise of industrialization and mass production in the 1800s, the U.S. economic structure changed dramatically. Employers needed masses of employees to run the equipment that produced capital and consumer goods. By the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. economy was attracting millions of immigrants. In addition, migration from country to city accelerated.

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Nineteenth-century employment law was based on the concept of liberty of contract: a worker had the freedom to bargain with an employer for terms of employment. This concept was challenged when workers organized into unions and engaged employers in collective bargaining. The U.S. legal and economic systems at the time were opposed to the idea of collective bargaining. Union organizers noted the inequality of bargaining power between a prospective employee and an employer.

Judges were hostile to attempts by state governments to regulate the hours and wages of employees. In LOCHNER V. NEW YORK, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5?4 vote, struck down a New York State law (N.Y. Laws 1897, chap. 415, art. 8, § 110) that specified a maximum 60-hour week for bakery employees. The Court ruled that the law was a "meddlesome interference" with...

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