Both federal and state laws govern the relationship between public employers (including federal, state and local governments and agencies) and their employees. Consequently, it is important for employers to have an awareness of the various federal, state and local laws that may govern the employment relationship. This chapter is designed to give public employers a brief synopsis of whether the public employer-employee relationship is covered by each law and the substance of that coverage. Public employers are encouraged to review each specific chapter in its entirety for a comprehensive discussion of the federal and state laws affecting relationships with their employees.
Employment at-will employment doctrine
As noted in Termination, Minnesota generally adheres to the employment at-will employment doctrine. Certain public employees are excluded from the employment at-will employment doctrine because of statutorily mandated systems, such as merit systems and governmental regulations governing dismissals.
There are no specific Minnesota laws regarding immigration and employment verification. Public employers are required to follow federal law in requiring all employees to complete a Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification.
See Immigration for a more in-depth discussion of immigration including E-Verify.
A governmental entity becomes liable to contribute to the Unemployment Contribution Fund when the entity performs services in the employ of the state, in any of its divisions or agencies or in any political subdivision of the state.
See Unemployment insurance, for a more in-depth discussion of liability.
Wage and hour requirements
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets forth standards for minimum wage and overtime pay and provides protection to employees, including those in the public sector, who make good-faith complaints regarding wage and hour matters, such as failure to pay overtime. Public utilities are covered under the FLSA and the FLSA has added the term public agency to the statutory definition of employer. Separate rules may apply for particular classes of public employees. For example, separate federal rules apply for any employee of a public agency who is engaged in fire protection activities or law enforcement activities.
Prevailing wage law
The prevailing wage law does not apply to direct employees of a public body who may be involved in the construction of a public works project.
Public employees are able to engage in voluntary sporadic or occasional work for their employer in a different capacity without those hours being combined for overtime purposes. An example of a voluntary sporadic assignment would be a school clerk collecting tickets at a high school football game. There are also very liberal rules covering outside employment by law enforcement and fire protection employees.
Compensatory time off
In general, federal, state and local government employers, with the agreement of their employees, can give compensatory (or comp) time off (at time and one-half) rather than pay cash overtime. In other words, if an employee worked 60 hours in a week, the employee could get 30 hours of comp time off instead of 20 hours of overtime pay.
An employee can accrue up to 480 hours of comp time (320 hours of actual overtime worked) if the work done by the employee for which comp time may be provided includes work in:
- a public safety activity (for example, law enforcement officers and firefighters)
- emergency response activity (such as the dispatch of emergency vehicles, rescue work and ambulance services)
- seasonal activity (typically work during periods of increased demand which are regular and recurring in nature).
- There is a 240-hour cap on comp time (160 hours of actual overtime worked) for all other types of work.
Compensatory time received by an employee in lieu of cash must be at the rate of not less than one and one-half hours of compensatory time for each hour of overtime work and must be under an agreement or understanding between the employer and employee prior to beginning the overtime. There is no specific time limit as to when a public employee may elect to use comp time earned. However, the public employer must permit the employee to use such time within a reasonable period after the employee requests time off, unless such use will unduly disrupt the government’s operations (which generally depends on the government’s workload and specific circumstances of each case). When an employee’s employment is terminated, the employee must be paid for all remaining comp time at the employee's current rate of pay.
See Wage and hours, for a more in-depth discussion of the FLSA.
Public employers and searches
Although not specifically mentioned the Supreme Court has held that there is a right to privacy which is based in the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Courts have consistently held, however, that the Fourth Amendment only applies to governmental actors. In one case, the Court held that a public employee may have an expectation of privacy in his desk if certain actions by the public employer created that expectation and if so, the right to search that desk may be restricted in some circumstances.
Drug and alcohol testing
Public employees have a Fourth Amendment right not to be subject to “unreasonable” searches, including drug testing. They may generally not be randomly tested unless they are working in a safety sensitive position such as operating dangerous equipment.
See Privacy rights, for a more in-depth discussion of employee’s privacy rights.
Public employees on military leave
Both the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and Minnesota statutes govern the employment rights of private and public employees called to military service.
USERRA provides three main types of protection:
The statute prohibits discrimination or retaliation against individuals based on past, current or future military obligations.
The law allows employees to take a leave of absence to serve in the uniformed services.
The law provides a qualified right to reinstatement upon return from service.
Minnesota law also provides protection for public employees called to military service. The law applies to all full-time officers and employees of the state, a county or municipal corporations, who are engaged in military duty performed in the service of the state or of the United States These employees are entitled to a leave of absence from their respective duties, without loss of time, service, vacation, holiday privileges, pay or of any other rights or privileges to which they would have otherwise been entitled for up to four years during a time of war or emergency. This leave is not required to be paid. Employers are also prohibited from taking adverse action against such employees regarding continuation of employment, reappointment to office, reemployment, reinstatement, transfer or promotion. The protection covers all periods of military services during which the employee is engaged in the performance of duty or training in the service of Minnesota or of the United States without regard to length of time. Additionally, public officers or employees who become voluntary members of any force of the organized militia or any reserve force of the United States and attend service schools are entitled to a six month leave of absence during any four-year period while going to and returning from the school.
See Military leave, for a more in-depth discussion of USERRA.
Many federal laws protect employees from being discriminated against or terminated on the basis of their race, gender, age, etc. These federal laws also prohibit retaliation against employees for exercising their right to seek protection under these laws. The following laws apply to public employees.
Title VII applies to both public and private employers with 15 employees. Title VII prohibits employers from terminating employees because of their:
- national origin
- gender (including pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions).
As an amendment to Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires that pregnant women be treated the same as men or non-pregnant women whose inability to work is due to a non-pregnancy related illness or disability.
See Discrimination, for a more in-depth discussion of Title VII.
The Minnesota Human Rights Act applies to all Minnesota departments, boards, bureaus, commissions, authorities or other agencies and prohibits discrimination in the hiring, discharge, compensation or other terms, conditions and privileges of employment on the basis of:
- national origin
- marital status
- familial status
- public assistance
- sexual orientation
- local human rights commission activity.
Retaliation against those employees who oppose an unlawful practice or participate in proceedings related to the allegations of an unlawful practice are also prohibited.
See Discrimination, for a more in-depth discussion of Title VII.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to public and private employers with at least 20 employees. The ADEA prohibits employers from discharging employees who are 40 or older because of their age.
See Discrimination, for a more in-depth discussion of the ADEA.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to public and private employers who have at least 15 employees. The act prohibits employers from discharging qualified individuals with a disability due to the employee’s disabled status.
See Disabilities and reasonable accommodation, for a more in-depth discussion of the ADA.
Family and medical leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies to employers with 50 or more employees and all public employers and educational agencies (regardless of whether they meet the private employer threshold requirements) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month period for employees upon any of the following:
- the birth or adoption of a child
- the employee’s own serious health condition
- the serious health condition of certain family members.
In addition, FMLA provides up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave if the employee needs to care for a family member who was injured or became ill while on active military duty. FMLA may also be available if a family member is called to active duty. Employers may not lawfully terminate employees who exercise their rights under the FMLA.
See Family and medical leave for a more in-depth discussion of the FMLA.
Requirements for public plant closing and mass layoffs
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) covers all quasi-public entities separately organized from regular government that employ either:
100 or more full-time workers (including all locations and including employees on layoff status or a leave of absence)
100 or more full- and part-time workers who work at least a combined 4,000 hours per week (not including overtime).
See Plant closing and mass layoffs, for a more in-depth discussion of WARN.
Safety and health regulations
State and local government employers are included in the limited exceptions for employers from OSH Act coverage.
See Safety and health, for a more in-depth discussion of OSHA.