Employment Law

This page sets out a brief overview of selected basics of employment law in Missouri. Topics covered below are:

“Employment at will” doctrine

Employees of non-governmental employers who are not protected by a personal employment contract or union contract are subject to Missouri’s “employment at will” doctrine. This doctrine states that, absent a contract of employment for a definite period of time or a contrary statutory provision, an employer may discharge an employee for any reason, or for no particular reason, and the employee cannot sue the employer for wrongful discharge. Conversely, the employee is entitled to quit at anytime without liability to the employer.

Accordingly, from an employer’s point of view, to maintain maximum flexibility, it is desirable not to enter into written employment agreements with employees.

On the other hand, from an employee’s point of view, it is always better to enter into a written employment agreement with the employer if the employer will agree to do so.

However, employers and employees should not assume that there is never any potential liability when an at-will employee is terminated. Liability can arise, for instance, under federal and state anti-discrimination statutes. More information about procedures under anti-discrimination statutes appears in another section below. Such statutes generally prohibit discrimination on the following bases:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Ancestry
  • Religion
  • Gender (including pregnancy and sexual harassment)
  • Age
  • Disability or handicap

Liability for wrongful termination of an at-will employee also may arise when the employee was terminated because the employee “blew the whistle” on illegal activity perpetrated by someone else in the company.

In fact, there are a number of possible exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, and each situation must be carefully reviewed with the assistance of an attorney to determine whether liability may exist in terminating or taking other adverse employment action against an at-will employee.

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Union contracts

Union members are protected by union contracts which typically require that termination of employment be only for “just cause” or “good cause.”

Most union contracts require a terminated or disciplined employee to pursue a grievance procedure outlined in the contract before being entitled to pursue a lawsuit against the employer.

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Public sector employment

Governmental employees usually have some form of protection from capricious employment termination and other adverse employment actions. The nature and extent of the protection varies with the type of employment and the particular laws and regulations affecting that employment.

Usually some sort of administrative appeal is available to public employees who feel they have been unjustly terminated or otherwise punished in employment. If an administrative appeal is available, the courts require in most cases that it be completed before the employee will be allowed to file a lawsuit challenging the adverse employment action.

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Anti-discrimination statutes

If an employee believes that he or she has been discriminated against in employment on a basis prohibited by anti-discrimination statutes (see the list of prohibited bases of discrimination in the “Employment at will doctrine” section above), the employee can pursue a claim under state or federal law, or both. The discrimination can be in the form of termination, demotion, transfer, pay reduction, or any other action by the employer that adversely affects the employee.

A discrimination complaint must be filed with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and/or the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In most cases the complaint must be filed within 180 days after the alleged act or acts of discrimination, but the deadline in some cases is as short as 90 days, so prompt consultation with attorney or inquiry of the enforcement agencies is advisable.

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Americans with Disabilities Act

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Generally, the ADA applies to employers of 15 or more employees.

The ADA protects individuals with disabilities in regard to job application procedures, hiring, firing, compensation, advancement, training and other conditions of employment.

The statute defines “qualified individual with a disability” as a person with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment the person holds or desires. The law defines disability as meaning:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual; or
  • A record of such impairment; or
  • Being regarded as having such a impairment.

Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees or prospective employees with disabilities to enable those individuals to perform their job functions unless the accommodations would be an undue hardship on the employer.

Possible sanctions against an employer for violating the ADA include injunction, back pay, reinstatement, attorney’s fees and costs, other monetary damages to compensate the employee for damages suffered as a result of the employer’s discriminatory acts, and possibly even punitive damages.

The ADA is a very complex law. and employers or employees having questions about its application should consult with an attorney for specific guidance in particular circumstances.

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Family and Medical Leave Act

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 requires certain employers, in particular circumstances, to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave of absence and to guarantee reinstatement to the same or equivalent position upon the expiration of the leave.

Employers covered by the FMLA include those who employ 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius for each working day in 20 or more work weeks in the current or proceeding calendar year. Special rules govern how the number of employees is counted.

Employees of employers covered by the FMLA are eligible for leave under the law only if they have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and a minimum of 1,250 during the last 12 months.

A limited exception permits a covered employer to deny leave to a salaried employee who is among the highest paid 10% of the employer’s workforce within a 75-mile radius of the work site where the employee is employed.

If an eligible employee properly notifies the employer of a desire to take a leave of absence under the FMLA, leave must be granted in four general circumstances:

  • For the birth and subsequent care of a child.
  • When an eligible employee receives a child through adoption or foster care.
  • So that the employee can care for a child, parent or spouse with a serious health condition.
  • When the employee’s own serious health condition makes the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her job.

This quick overview of the FMLA omits many details and does not mention some other exceptions to the applicability of the law, so consultation with an attorney is advisable to resolve legal issues in a particular situation.

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Wage and hour laws

Federal and/or state minimum wage law apply to most employees. The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour for non-exempt employees ($2.13/hour for employees who receive tips). In 2023 the Missouri minimum wage is $12/hour, but retail or service employers grossing less than $500,000/year are not subject to the minimum wage law.

The law requires overtime payment to all non-exempt employees at 1.5 times their regular hourly rates. Overtime is generally defined as work in excess of 40 hours in a workweek. A workweek is defined as seven days, but the employer can specify for its own internal purposes on which day of the week a workweek begins.

Although some employers pay overtime for hours worked in excess of 8 hours per day, this is not required by law; rather, the only legal requirement is to pay overtime for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek.

For most employees, the law does not permit granting compensatory time off in lieu of overtime payments. Under the federal wage and hour law, if an employee has worked more than 40 hours in a week, the only circumstance in which it is legal to allow compensatory time off in lieu of overtime payment is when the time off is granted and taken in the same work week during which the employee worked more than 40 hours.

Certain employees are exempt from overtime pay requirements, but are still subject to the minimum wage law. Generally, employees exempt from overtime pay requirements are executives, administrators, professionals and outside sales people. The definitions of these exempt employees are complex, so each situation should be carefully reviewed.

This brief summary of wage and hour principles omits many details and does not cover many possible situations, so questions about the applicability of wage and hour laws should be discussed with an attorney.

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Child labor laws

Both federal and state statutes regulate the employment of children.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits the employment of oppressive child labor in commerce and in the production of goods for commerce. Also, the so-called “hotgoods” ban generally prohibits a producer, manufacturer or dealer of goods from shipping or delivering for shipment in commerce any goods produced in an establishment in or about which oppressive child labor was employed within 30 days before removal of the goods from the establishment.

“Oppressive child labor” is defined by the FLSA as:

  • Employment of minors 16 and 17 years old in any occupation found to be particularly hazardous by the Secretary of Labor. (The Secretary of Labor has issued a number of “hazardous occupation orders” prohibiting employment of 16- and 17-year-olds in particular occupations. The orders can be found in volume 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations at Sec. 570.120. However, 16- and 17-year-olds may work in jobs deemed “hazardous” if they are enrolled in qualified cooperative vocational educational programs.)
  • Employment of minors under 16 in any other occupation, with the exception that minors between 14 and 16 may be employed in limited work outside school hours in non-manufacturing and non-mining occupations, subject to the following restrictions:
  • No minor may work more than 40 hours per week or more than eight hours a day when school is not in session
  • No minor may work more than 18 hours per week or more than three hours per day when school is in session
  • The minor’s employment must be confined to the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Violations of the FLSA can result in injunctions, criminal prosecution, civil penalties of $10,000 or more, and other corrective measures.

An employer risks violating the FLSA by merely inquiring about a job applicant’s age. To ensure compliance, the employer should obtain an age certificate issued under Department of Labor regulations set out in volume 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations at Sections 570.1-570.121.

Most of Missouri’s child labor laws are contained in Chapter 294 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, but scattered additional sections also regulate employment of children. For instance, Sec. 292.040 prohibits employment of minors to clean any part of a mill, gear assembly or machinery while it is in motion.

To the extent Missouri child labor laws are in conflict with the FLSA, the FLSA governs, but Missouri child labor laws prevail when they are more restrictive to employers or more favorable to employees or deal with areas not covered by the FLSA.

The starting point in understanding Missouri child labor laws is they generally regulate or prohibit the employment of minors in a “gainful occupation,” subject to certain exceptions. Sec. 294.011 defines gainful occupation as any occupation except the following:

  • Work performed by a child for a parent, legal custodian or guardian
  • Occasional work performed by a child with the knowledge and consent of his or her parent, legal custodian or guardian
  • Work performed by a child 12 years of age or over in the sale, delivery or distribution of newspapers, magazines or periodicals
  • Child care
  • Occasional yard or farm work performed by a child with the knowledge and consent of his or her parent, legal custodian or guardian

If a minor is working at a gainful occupation, that work is regulated. The presence of a minor under age 16 in any workplace is considered strong evidence that the child is gainfully employed there.

The regulatory provisions of Missouri’s child labor laws include the following:

  • Work certificates are required for employment of any minor under 16 during a regular school term.
  • When school is not in session, minors under 16 may not be employed at any gainful occupation for more than an eight-hour day or a six-day, 40-hour week, and cannot work between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
  • When school is in session, minors under 16 cannot be employed in any gainful occupation after 7 p.m. on days immediately preceding school days. (However, restrictions on night work are inapplicable to minors permanently excused from school attendance.)
  • Except for the employment certificate requirement, a minor between 14 and 16 years of age may be employed at any gainful occupation other than 17 specifically defined “hazardous” occupations prohibited by Sec. 294.040, but minors under 14 cannot be employed in any gainful occupation.
  • Provisions for issuance of employment and age certificates are contained in Sections 294.027, 294.045, 294.051, 294.060, and 294.080.

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