Tennessee Labor Law

1. Introduction

The State of Tennessee, located in the southeastern region of the United States, upholds various laws and statutes to regulate employment practices and maintain balanced labor relations. Governed by both federal and state legislation, employers and employees in Tennessee must comply with laws that cover a wide range of aspects including wages, overtime pay, leave policies, termination procedures, unemployment benefits, and workplace safety. Tennessee's employment laws are designed to ensure fair treatment for workers while allowing businesses to operate efficiently and competitively. This comprehensive guide will outline the noteworthy employment-related laws in Tennessee, offering a closer look at the state-specific regulations governing the workforce. The state's rules often work in conjunction with federal guidelines, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and others, but can also include unique state-level provisions that reflect Tennessee's local legislative priorities. Understanding these laws is crucial for both employers and employees to navigate their rights and responsibilities within the Tennessee labor market.

2. Minimum Wage Laws

Tennessee is somewhat unique in the realm of minimum wage laws, as it is one of the few states that do not have a state-mandated minimum wage. Therefore, employers in Tennessee default to the federal minimum wage as established by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). As of the last update, the federal minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour.

It should be noted, however, that certain cities or counties within Tennessee may pass ordinances that establish a higher local minimum wage for workers within their jurisdictions. Additionally, there are exceptions under the FLSA that might affect workers' minimum wage, such as tipped employees, who can be paid a lower cash wage as long as their tips bring them up to the equivalent of the full minimum wage.

3. Overtime Regulations

Under the FLSA, Tennessee employees are entitled to overtime pay for any hours worked over 40 in a workweek. The overtime rate is one-and-one-half times an employee’s regular rate of pay. There are some exemptions from the overtime requirements set forth by the FLSA, which may apply to specific job categories such as certain administrative, executive, professional, outside sales, and computer employees.

4. Vacation Leave

In Tennessee, employers are not required by state law to provide workers with paid or unpaid vacation benefits. If an employer chooses to offer vacation leave, their policy must comply with the terms of the employment contract or company policy. Tennessee law mandates that an employer must adhere to its own established policies when administering vacation leave.

When an employee leaves the company, whether through resignation or termination, the employer is not obliged to pay out accrued vacation time unless there is a clear policy in place that dictates such payment.

5. Sick Leave

Similarly to vacation leave, Tennessee law does not require employers to provide employees with sick leave benefits, either paid or unpaid. Should an employer decide to offer sick leave, they must comply with the terms of their established policy or employment contract.

It is important to note that while there is no state-mandated sick leave, provisions from the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may apply to eligible employees. Under the FMLA, qualified employees are entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for certain family and medical reasons, although specific conditions must be met.

6. Holiday Leave

In Tennessee, there are no state laws that require private employers to provide paid holiday leave to their employees. This means that businesses in Tennessee have the discretion to decide if they wish to offer paid holidays to their workforce. However, if an employer chooses to provide paid holiday benefits, it is advisable for this to be outlined in the company's policy or in the employment agreement.

  • Employers that do offer holiday pay must adhere to their own policies and treat all employees equally according to those policies.
  • If an employee works on a holiday, there is no legal requirement under state law to offer extra pay, such as time-and-a-half or double time. Any premium pay for holiday hours would be a result of company policy rather than state mandate.
  • For eligible public sector employees, the state observes certain holidays, which may include days like New Year's Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas among others where offices are closed.

While private employers are not required to close on any specific holidays, many follow a similar schedule to the public sector and observe major national holidays. Again, the provision of paid or unpaid leave for these days is entirely up to the employer's discretion and set forth in their internal policies.

7. Breaks

For adult workers, Tennessee does not have state-specific laws requiring employers to provide breaks or meal periods. Workers in Tennessee are subject to the federal standards under the FLSA, which also does not mandate breaks or meal periods for adult workers. However, it is common practice for employers to provide short breaks ranging between 5 to 20 minutes, and these breaks must be paid according to federal law.

When it comes to minor employees under the age of 18, Tennessee law requires that they must be given a 30-minute break if they are scheduled to work six hours consecutively. This requirement is intended to ensure that younger workers have adequate time to rest and eat during longer shifts.

  • Rest Breaks: Although not required by law for adults, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the workweek and considered in determining if overtime was worked.
  • Meal Periods: For adult workers in Tennessee, meal periods (typically 30 minutes or more) do not need to be provided. However, if an employer chooses to offer a meal period, the federal FLSA stipulates that the employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals, and the meal period is not considered compensable time.
  • Breaks for Minors: Employers must provide a 30-minute unpaid break for minors scheduled to work more than consecutive 6 hours. This break cannot be scheduled during or before the first hour of scheduled work activity.

It's important for both employers and employees to note that while Tennessee does not mandate breaks or meal periods for adults, some employers may establish their own policies regarding such periods. If so, they are legally bound to follow their own rules and guidelines as set forth in their company policies or employee handbooks.

8. Employment Termination Laws

In Tennessee, employment relationships are generally considered "at-will". This means that either the employer or the employee can end the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause, and with or without notice, as long as the termination does not violate any employment contract or statutory law. However, there are several important exceptions and considerations to this at-will doctrine that both employers and employees need to be aware of.

  • Discrimination: Employers cannot terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, age, or any other protected characteristic under federal or state law.
  • Retaliation: It is illegal for an employer to fire an employee for engaging in protected activities, such as filing a complaint of discrimination, participating in an investigation, or for whistleblowing.
  • Public Policy: Tennessee recognizes a public policy exception to the at-will rule, meaning that an employee may not be terminated for reasons that would violate a clear public policy of the state.
  • Implied Contracts: If an employer's policies or handbooks imply that certain procedures will be followed before termination, or suggest that employees will not be fired except for cause, an implied contract may be found, which could limit the employer's ability to terminate at will.
  • Covenant of Good Faith: While Tennessee does not recognize the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in employment relationships as some other states do, employers still cannot fire employees for malicious reasons.
  • Notice of Termination and Final Paycheck: Tennessee law does not mandate that employers give notice prior to termination. However, employers must provide a terminating employee's final paycheck no later than the next regular payday or within 21 days, whichever is later.
  • Mass Layoffs: Under the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, employers with 100 or more employees must provide at least 60 calendar days advance notice of plant closures and mass layoffs in certain situations.

It is also important for employers to be consistent with their termination practices to avoid claims of unfair treatment or discrimination. Consistency in the application of disciplinary policies and procedures is crucial for maintaining compliance with both state and federal laws.

While Tennessee's employment laws grant a significant amount of flexibility to employers, understanding the limitations and obligations is fundamental to uphold lawful employment practices. Both employers and employees should be familiar with these regulations or consult legal professionals when facing employment termination issues.

9. Unemployment Rights

In the state of Tennessee, unemployment benefits provide temporary financial assistance to workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own and meet certain eligibility requirements. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development is responsible for administering unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in the state.

The eligibility criteria for receiving unemployment benefits in Tennessee typically include:

  • Having worked in Tennessee during the past 12 to 18 months.
  • Having earned at least a minimum amount of wages as determined by Tennessee guidelines.
  • Being unemployed through no fault of one's own, as defined under Tennessee law.
  • Being able and available to work full-time and actively seeking full-time employment.

To file for unemployment, claimants must submit an application either online or by calling the claims center. The information required typically includes:

  • Social Security number.
  • Details of previous employment.
  • Reasons for unemployment.
  • Banking information for direct deposit, if desired.

Once an individual has filed a claim, they must certify weekly that they are still eligible for benefits. This process includes reporting any earnings from work and confirming ongoing job search efforts. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in denial of benefits.

Benefits are calculated based on the individual’s earnings during the base period, which is typically the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters before the claim was filed. The amount of UI benefits and the duration of those benefits may vary based on the claimant’s previous wages and the overall unemployment rate in Tennessee.

In some cases, claimants may be directed to participate in reemployment activities designed to help them find new employment. This could include workshops, training, or job fairs.

Tennessee also enforces a one-week waiting period before claimants can start receiving benefits. During this time, claimants must meet all eligibility requirements but will not receive payment for the first week.

Additionally, claimants who feel they have been wrongfully denied unemployment benefits have the right to appeal the decision. The appeals process involves a hearing where both the claimant and the former employer can present evidence and testimony to an administrative judge.

It’s important to note that unemployment insurance is intended as a temporary relief to assist individuals while they seek new employment. It is not meant to be a long-term substitute for a paycheck and is subject to federal and state regulations that govern its use and distribution.

10. Workplace Safety

Workplace safety in Tennessee is governed by a combination of state and federal regulations designed to ensure that employees have a safe and healthy environment in which to work. The main federal agency overseeing workplace safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), while at the state level, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) administers state-specific safety laws.

Tennessee employers are required to provide their workers with protection against hazards that can cause injury or illness. This includes having proper safety equipment, offering training for employees on how to safely perform their jobs, and maintaining records of any workplace injuries or illnesses. Compliance with both federal and state workplace safety regulations is mandatory, and failure to adhere to these laws can result in penalties.

Some of the key areas covered under workplace safety laws in Tennessee include:

  • Hazard Communication: Employers must inform employees about the presence of hazardous chemicals in the workplace through proper labeling, data sheets, and training programs.
  • Emergency Action Plans: Businesses are required to have a written emergency action plan, outlining the procedures employees should follow in the event of an emergency such as a fire or natural disaster.
  • Fire Safety: Employers must comply with state and local fire codes and provide adequate fire safety measures, including functioning fire extinguishers, clearly marked exits, and fire alarms.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Depending on the job, employers may be required to provide PPE like gloves, goggles, respirators, and hard hats to protect employees from job-specific hazards.
  • Machine Guarding: Machinery must be properly guarded to protect workers from points of operation, ingoing nip points, rotating parts, flying chips, and sparks.
  • Ergonomics: While there are no specific ergonomics regulations under Tennessee law, employers are encouraged to consider ergonomic factors in the workplace to prevent musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Inspections: TOSHA compliance officers conduct inspections of workplaces without advance notice to ensure compliance with health and safety standards. Employers are granted the right to request an inspection, and employees can also file complaints if they believe violations exist.
  • Reporting and Recordkeeping: Employers are required to report work-related fatalities within 8 hours and hospitalizations, amputations, or losses of an eye within 24 hours. Additionally, employers must keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses and post a summary of these records from February 1 to April 30 each year.
  • Workers’ Compensation: In case of a workplace injury or illness, Tennessee's workers' compensation program provides benefits to the injured employee, including medical expenses, income benefits, and rehabilitation support.
  • Whistleblower Protections: Employees who report workplace safety violations are protected under both state and federal laws. Retaliation against employees for exercising their rights under safety and health regulations is prohibited.

Workplace safety is not just the responsibility of the employer; employees also play a vital role. They are encouraged to actively participate in safety training, follow all safety procedures, wear the provided PPE, and report any unsafe conditions or practices.

In conclusion, Tennessee's approach to workplace safety involves regulatory requirements to promote a safe working environment, while also encouraging a collaborative culture of safety between employers and employees. By ensuring rigorous adherence to safety standards, the state aims to minimize workplace injuries and illnesses and safeguard the wellbeing of its workforce.