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Wisconsin Employment Law Basics

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

Are you an employee in Wisconsin? If so, you should know about the federal and state laws that protect your rights at work, from laws prohibiting discrimination to laws requiring overtime, unemployment compensation, and more. This article provides basic information about your workplace rights as a Wisconsin employee.

Wisconsin Wage and Hour Laws

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. In Wisconsin, the state minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum: $7.25 an hour.

If you earn tips as part of your compensation, your employer can pay you a lower minimum wage—as little as $2.33 an hour, under Wisconsin law—as long as that amount, plus your tips, adds up to at least the regular minimum wage of $7.25.

Both Wisconsin law and the FLSA require Wisconsin employers to 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. The Labor Standards Bureau, part of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, handles overtime and wage issues in the state.

Discrimination and Harassment Laws in Wisconsin

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.

Wisconsin also prohibits discrimination based on these traits. In addition, Wisconsin employers may not discriminate based on an employee’s marital status, sexual orientation, military service, or arrest or conviction record. All Wisconsin employers, no matter how small, must follow these laws. For more information on Wisconsin laws that prohibit discrimination, see the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Fair Employment Law page.

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 Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development), or in a lawsuit.

Wisconsin Leave Laws

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

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

  • Military leave. The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and Wisconsin law both require employers to allow employees to take leave from work for federal or state military service or duty. Wisconsin employees are also protected if they need time off for military training or they are called to active service during a public health emergency by the state department of hygiene. Employees must be reinstated after their leave, and may not be fired for up to one year after they return to work, except for good cause.
  • 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. Under Wisconsin law, employees who are eligible may take up to six weeks off each year for the birth or adoption of a child, and an addition two weeks off to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Wisconsin employees may also take two weeks off for their own serious health conditions.
  • 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. Wisconsin employers must also allow employees to take time off work for jury service. Employers may not take away employees’ seniority or raises, or otherwise discipline employees, for serving on a jury.
  • Voting. Wisconsin employees are entitled to take up to three hours off work, without pay, to cast their ballots.

Workers’ Compensation and Workplace Safety Laws

In Wisconsin, and all other states, 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.

If you suffer an on-the-job injury or illness, you will likely be eligible for workers’ compensation. Most Wisconsin employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ comp provides you with a percentage of your usual earnings, pays for necessary medical treatment, and provides vocational rehabilitation and other benefits.

Leaving Your Job

Wisconsin 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 complaining about illegal discrimination or filing a wage claim for unpaid overtime.

Unemployment and Insurance Benefits

If you were laid off or otherwise lost your job through no fault of your own (that is, you were not fired for serious misconduct and did not quit your job voluntarily), you may qualify for unemployment benefits. Once you start receiving benefits, you will have to search for work and register with Wisconsin Job Service to continue receiving them. If you are eligible, you will receive a percentage of your previous earnings for 26 weeks while you are looking for a new job. Find out more (or file an online claim) at the website of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Under a federal law called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), you may have the right to continue your health insurance coverage after your employment ends. However, 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 these benefits for 18 to 36 months, depending on your situation.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have questions about your workplace rights, you should speak to an experienced Wisconsin employment lawyer.

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