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Tennessee Employment Law Basics

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn about the federal and Tennessee laws that protect employees at work.

If you work in Tennessee, federal and state employment laws protect your workplace rights. Read on to find out about laws prohibiting discrimination, requiring payment of overtime and the minimum wage, giving you the right to take time off, and more.

Discrimination and Harassment Laws in Tennessee

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.

Tennessee law also bans discrimination based on most of these traits. These laws apply to Tennessee employers with at least eight employees. To learn more about these laws, visit the website of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission.

The same laws the prohibit discrimination also ban harassment. Harassment is unwelcome actions or statements, based on a protected trait (like race or sex), that create a hostile or offensive working environment or that an employee must endure in order to get or keep a job. Sexual harassment is the most familiar type of harassment, but harassment might also be based on disability, ethnicity, or another protected trait.

If you complaint 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 a government agency (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Tennessee Human Rights Commission), or in a lawsuit.

Wage and Hour Laws in Tennessee

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the wage and hour standards employers must follow, including the minimum wage, overtime, and other wage protections. Employers must pay the highest minimum wage applicable to employees, whether set by federal, state, or local law. Tennessee doesn’t have a minimum wage, so employees in Tennessee are entitled to earn at least the federal minimum hourly wage, currently $7.25 an hour.

If you earn tips, your employer may pay you a lower minimum wage, as long as you earn enough in tips to bring your hourly pay up to at least the full minimum wage of $7.25. In Tennessee, employers may pay tipped employees as little as $2.13 an hour.

Under the FLSA, Tennessee 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.

Tennessee Leave Laws

Many employers offer their employees paid leave, such as vacation time, sick days, holidays, or paid time off (PTO) benefits. In Tennessee, these benefits are discretionary. Some states require employers to give employees paid sick days, but neither Tennessee 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. Tennessee law also gives employees the right to take up to four months off work, unpaid, for pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and adoption. This law applies only to employees who have worked for the employer for the last 12 consecutive months and work at a site where the employer has at least 100 full-time employees.
  • 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. Employers in Tennessee may not fire or refuse to hire someone because of membership in the National Guard, and may not fire employees for taking time off work for required drills and 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. Tennessee employers must also allow employees to take time off work, with pay, for jury service. Employees may not be required to work the night shift on the evening before or during jury duty.
  • Voting. Tennessee employers must give employees paid time off work (up to three hours) to cast their ballots. However, employees are not entitled to voting leave if they have at three hours off work before the polls open or after they close.

Workplace Safety and Injuries in Tennessee

In every state, including Tennessee, 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 unsafe or hazardous working conditions.

Most Tennessee 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.

Leaving Your Job in Tennessee

Tennessee employees generally work at will. This means 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 claim for overtime, or making an OSHA complaint.

Unemployment and Insurance Benefits

If you are out of work through no fault of your own (that is, you were not fired for serious misconduct and you didn’t quit your job voluntarily), you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. You must meet an earnings requirement to qualify for benefits. If you are eligible, you will receive a percentage of your previous earnings for 26 weeks (up to a maximum of $275 per week) 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 Unemployment page of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

If you have group health insurance through your employer, you may have the right to continue your benefits after you leave your job (whether you do so voluntarily or involuntarily). You will have to pay the full premium (including whatever portion your employer used to pay), 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 Tennessee. If you believe your employer has violated your legal rights, you should speak to an experienced Tennessee 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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