Labor and Employment

Federal, State, or Local: Which Wage Laws Apply to Me?

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Find out which laws apply to you in the event of a conflict.

Federal wage laws apply to employers across the nation. But what if you work in a state, city, or county that has its own wage laws? Which rules apply to you if these laws conflict? Usually, your employer must follow whichever law is most generous to employees. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.

Most Favorable Provisions Apply

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law that governs wages and hours. The FLSA requires employers to pay the minimum wage, requires employers to pay overtime when employees work over 40 hours in a week, and creates child labor standards. (For more information, see our Wage and Hour FAQ.)

Most states also have their own wage and hours laws. Some of these laws mirror the FLSA, while others are more or less generous to employees. In addition, local governments (cities and counties) often pass their own wage and hour laws, particularly minimum wage laws for employers doing business locally.

If more than one law applies to you, your employer must comply with the provision that is most favorable to employees. For example, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25. If your state minimum wage is $8 an hour, and your city requires employers to pay at least $9.25 an hour, you must be paid at least $9.25.

When Only One Provision Applies

In some situations, only one wage law protects you, even if multiple laws apply where you work. If you are exempt from coverage under one law, you may still be protected by another. For example, certain computer professionals who make $27.63 per hour are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. In other words, these employees are not entitled to overtime under federal law. However, they may still be protected by their state’s overtime law. Even if the state overtime law is less generous than the FLSA (for example, because it applies only after an employee has worked 46 hours in a week, as Kansas law does), the employee can rely only on the state protections.

Special Compensation Rules

Some states have special laws, sometimes contained in wage orders or regulations, that establish different minimum wage rates or other wage and hour rules for certain employees or industries. Even if the federal and state laws appear to be identical at first glance, a wage order or other regulation might give some employees additional rights.

For example, federal law doesn’t require employers to provide employees with meal breaks. Many states follow the same general rule. However, a state might have a different rule for minors, who must receive breaks during the day even if adult employees don’t get to take them.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What should I do if I think my employer has mistakenly classified me as exempt from federal or state overtime laws?
  • How do I find out what local wage and hour laws apply to me?
  • If my employer isn’t paying me enough under a local minimum wage law, where do I complain?
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