Kentucky Employment Law Basics

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Kentucky employees are protected at work by both federal and state law.
Are you a Kentucky employee? If so, you should be aware of your rights at work. State and federal laws prohibit discrimination, require payment of minimum wage, and give you the right to take leave from work, among other things. You are protected in every part of the employment relationship, from interviews and hiring to pay, benefits, performance evaluation, discipline, layoffs, and termination.

This article provides some basic information on your rights as an employee in Kentucky.

Discrimination and Harassment Laws in Kentucky

Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not make job decisions based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), or national origin. Additional federal laws prohibit discrimination based on age (if the employee is at least 40 years old), genetic information, or disability. 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 employment relationship, from job listings, interviews, and hiring decisions, to promotions, benefits, compensation, discipline, layoffs, and termination. To learn more about the federal laws that ban employment discrimination, see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Laws Enforced by the EEOC.

Kentucky law prohibits discrimination based on most of these traits. Kentucky’s discrimination law applies to smaller employers: You are protected if your employer has eight or more employees. The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights enforces the state antidiscrimination law.

Workplace harassment is also illegal under these same laws. Harassment is defined as unwelcome actions or statements, based on a protected trait (such as disability or race), that create a hostile or offensive working environment or that an employee must endure in order to get or keep a job. For example, if an employee has to go out on dates with her supervisor as a condition of promotion or has to put up with a constant barrage of sexual banter, jokes, and images at work, that would be harassment. Sexual harassment is the most familiar type of harassment, but harassment might also be based on age, ethnicity, or another protected trait.

If you complain of workplace discrimination or harassment, you are protected from retaliation. It is illegal for your employer to take any negative job action against you, whether you complain within the company, to the EEOC or the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, or in a lawsuit.

Kentucky Laws on Workplace Safety and Injuries

In every state, including Kentucky, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a safe workplace, free of known hazards. Employers must provide safe, healthy working conditions, including the necessary training and safety equipment for their industry.

Employees have the right to request an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection if they believe their employer has committed safety violations. It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who complain of dangerous or hazardous working conditions.

Most Kentucky employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance, which covers employees who suffer an on-the-job injury or illness. Workers’ comp pays you a percentage of your usual earnings while you are unable to work, pays for necessary medical treatment, and provides vocational rehabilitation and other benefits.

Wage and Hour Law In Kentucky

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the pay standards employers must follow, including the minimum wage, overtime pay, and other wage and hour rules. Employers must pay the highest minimum wage applicable to employees, whether set by federal, state, or local law. In Kentucky, the state minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour.

If you earn tips, your employer can pay you a lower hourly minimum wage, as long as your wage plus your tips add up to at least the full minimum wage per hour. Kentucky employers may pay tipped employees as little as $2.13 an hour, as long as they make enough in tips to reach the regular minimum wage rate.

Under the FLSA and Kentucky law, employers must pay employees overtime—time and a half—for all hours worked after the first 40 in a week. Some employees are not entitled to earn overtime, however. If you fall within an exception to the overtime laws (for example, because you are a salaried manager as defined by the law), you are an exempt employee, which means you are not eligible for overtime. You can find out more about the FLSA from the Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor. Learn more about Kentucky’s wage and overtime rules from the Kentucky Labor Cabinet.

Time Off From Work in Kentucky

Many employers offer their employees paid leave, such as vacation time, sick days, holidays, or paid time off (PTO) benefits. In Kentucky, these benefits are discretionary. Some states require employers to give employees paid sick days, but neither Kentucky nor federal law requires employers to offer paid leave.

However, employers may be required to offer unpaid leave for reasons such as:

  • 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, caregiving, and bonding with a new child. While you are on FMLA leave, your employer must continue your group health benefits. You have the right to be reinstated when your leave is through. Kentucky law also gives employees the right to time off when they adopt a child under the age of seven. Employees may take up to six weeks of leave for adoption.
  • Military leave. The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) requires employers to allow employees to take leave from work for federal or state military service or duty. Employees must be reinstated when their military leave is through. Kentucky law extends similar rights to employees who are called to active state duty or training.
  • Military family leave. Under the FMLA, eligible employees may take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who was seriously injured on military duty.
  • Jury duty. Kentucky employers must also allow employees to take time off work for jury service. This leave is unpaid.
  • Voting leave. Employers must give Kentucky employees a reasonable amount of time off work, up to four hours, to cast their ballots. This time is unpaid.

Leaving Your Job in Kentucky

Kentucky employees generally work at will. This means they may quit at any time, for any reason, and they 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 raising concerns about discrimination, filing a wage claim against your employer, or making an OSHA complaint.

Unemployment and Insurance Benefits

If you are out of work through no fault of your own (that is, you didn’t quit your job voluntarily and you were not fired for serious misconduct), you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. To qualify, you must meet the state’s earning requirements. If you are eligible, you will receive a percentage of your previous earnings (up to a maximum of $415 per week) for 26 weeks while you are looking for a new job. Learn more about eligibility requirements, benefit amounts, job search requirements, and more (or file a claim for benefits online) at the Kentucky Career Center.

If you have group health benefits through your employer, you may have the right to continue your coverage after you leave your job (whether you quit or are laid off or fired). These rights are provided by a federal law called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA. You will have to pay the full premium (including any portion your employer used to pay as an employment benefit), plus up to 2% of that amount for administrative costs. You can continue your benefits for up to 18 months; your spouse and other dependents may continue their benefits for 18 to 36 months, depending on the circumstances.

Talk to a Lawyer

As you can see, a variety of state and federal laws protect employees in Kentucky. If you believe your employer has violated your legal rights, you should speak to an experienced Kentucky employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you figure out whether you have legal claims against your employer and, if so, how best to pursue them.

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