Iowa Employment Law Basics

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn the basic laws that protect you as an employee in Iowa.

Federal and Iowa employment laws protect employee rights in every part of the employment relationship, from hiring to firing. These laws prohibit discrimination, require employers to pay the minimum wage and overtime, and give you certain rights to time off, among other things. This guide covers the basic laws that protect you as an employee in Iowa.

Discrimination and Harassment

Federal law prohibits employers from making job decisions based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (if the employee is at least 40 years old), disability, or genetic information. Employers with at least 15 employees are subject to these laws (for age discrimination, employers with at least 20 employees must comply with the law). Employers may not discriminate in any part of the hiring process, from interview questions and job postings to hiring, promotions, pay and benefits, time off, discipline, and firing. For details on federal employment discrimination laws, see Laws Enforced by EEOC.

In addition, Iowa law protects employees from discrimination based on their gender identity, sexual orientation, and AIDS or HIV status. Iowa also prohibits age discrimination against employees who are at least 18 years old, a broader protection than federal law. Iowa employers that have at least four employees must comply with these laws prohibiting discrimination. See the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for details on employee rights.

These state and federal laws also prohibit harassment based on these characteristics. Harassment is unwelcome comments, conduct, or behavior on the job, based on these characteristics (for example, race or sex), that either the victim must put up with as a condition of employment or that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Sexual harassment – often in the form of crude comments, propositions, unwanted touching, and so on – is the most well-known type of harassment, but harassment might also be based on race, age, and so on.

If you complaint about workplace discrimination or harassment, you are protected from retaliation. Your employer may not discipline, fire, or take other negative action against you because you complain within the company, to a government agency, or in a lawsuit.

Minimum Wage and Overtime Rules

State and federal law set the rules for minimum wage, overtime, and other wage and hour protections. Employers must pay the highest minimum wage applicable to employees, whether set by federal, state, or local law. Currently, the Iowa minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour.

In Iowa, your employer must pay you the overtime premium – one-and-a-half times your usual hourly rate – if you work more than 40 hours in a week. Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime, however: If you are exempt (because, for example, you are a salaried manager), you may not be eligible for overtime. (Learn more about exempt employees and overtime.)

Workplace Safety and Injuries

Employees have the right to a safe workplace. Employers must offer working conditions free of known dangers and perform appropriate safety training. Should a complaint arise, employees have the right to request an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety inspection. It is illegal for employers to retaliate or discriminate against, or to fire, employees who point out unsafe or hazardous working conditions.

If you are injured on the job, you will likely be eligible for workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation is a disability insurance program. Most Iowa employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ comp pays you part of your usual earnings, pays for necessary medical treatment, and provides vocational rehabilitation and other benefits.

Time Off Work

Many employers offer their employees paid leave, in the form of sick days, vacation time, holidays, or paid time off (PTO) benefits. Neither Iowa nor federal law requires employers to offer these paid leave benefits.

However, employers are required to offer unpaid leave in some situations, including:

  • Family and medical leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with at least 50 employees to give eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year for illness and caregiving, and sometimes longer. While you are on FMLA leave, your employer must continue your benefits. You have the right to be reinstated when your leave is through. Iowa law also requires employers with at least four employees to provide up to eight weeks of pregnancy disability leave, unpaid, to employees who are temporarily disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions.
  • Military leave. The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and Iowa law both require employers to allow employees to take leave from work for federal or state military service or duty. Employees must be reinstated after their leave, and may not be discriminated against based on their service.
  • Jury duty and voting. Iowa employers must also allow employees to take time off work to serve on a jury (unpaid) and to cast a ballot (paid).

When Employment Ends

In Iowa, employees generally work at will. This means they can quit at any time, and can be fired at any time, for any reason that is not illegal. However, even at-will employees may not be fired for reasons that are discriminatory or retaliatory. You may not be fired, for example, for complaining about wage and hour violations, discrimination, or workplace hazards.

Employers must give departing employees their final paychecks on the next scheduled payday. Your employer does not have to pay out your unused, accrued vacation time unless it is contractually bound to do so.

If you become unemployed through no fault of your own (that is, you don’t voluntarily quit your job and you are not fired for serious misconduct), you will likely be eligible for unemployment benefits. You must meet certain eligibility requirements, including a minimum earnings requirement. You must also look for work actively to continue receiving benefits. If you are eligible, you will receive a percentage of your previous earnings for up to 26 weeks, while you are looking for a new job.

A federal law called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) gives you the right to continue your health insurance coverage after your employment ends. You must pay the full premium (including whatever portion your employer used to pay). You can continue these benefits for 18 to 36 months, depending on your situation and whether you have dependents.

More Information on Employment Laws in Iowa

For details on federal laws, including workers' comp, the FMLA, and minimum wage, see Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor on the U.S. Department of Labor website. For state rules, see the Iowa Division of Labor website.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

If you believe your employer has violated your workplace rights, you should speak to an experienced Iowa employment lawyer.

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