Labor and Employment Law Overview: Tennessee

Labor and Employment Law Overview requirements for other states

Federal law and guidance on this subject should be reviewed together with this section.

Author: XpertHR Editorial Team

Summary

  • State law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees in a variety of protected classes. See EEO, Diversity and Employee Relations.
  • Tennessee law prohibits an employer from knowingly hiring individuals who are not authorized to work in the US. Tennessee employers are permitted, however, to conduct drug and alcohol testing and criminal history background checks. See Recruiting and Hiring.
  • In Tennessee, there are many requirements relating to meal and rest breaks, breastfeeding breaks and child labor. See Wage and Hour.
  • Tennessee has a number of laws that relate to employee pay and benefits, including health care continuation, pay frequency and wage deductions. See Pay and Benefits.
  • Under Tennessee law, employees are entitled to a number of leaves, including parental leave, voting leave, jury duty leave, military leave and emergency responder leave. See Attendance and Leave.
  • Tennessee's occupational safety and health law adopts federal regulations. Tennessee also regulates smoking and weapons in the workplace. See Health and Safety.
  • Certain Tennessee employers must comply with termination pay and plant closing notification requirements. See Organizational Exit.

Introduction to Employment Law in Tennessee

Tennessee is generally considered an employer-friendly state.

Select Tennessee employment requirements are summarized below to help an employer understand the range of employment laws affecting the employer-employee relationship in the state. An employer must comply with both federal and state law.

An employer must also comply with applicable municipal law obligations affecting the employment relationship, in addition to complying with state and federal requirements.

EEO, Diversity and Employee Relations

Key Tennessee requirements impacting EEO, diversity and employee relations are:

Tennessee Human Rights Act

The Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA) generally applies to employers that have eight or more employees within Tennessee and prohibits discrimination based on a number of protected classes including:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Creed;
  • Religion;
  • Sex;
  • Age (40 and over);
  • National origin; and
  • Ancestry.

The THRA also prohibits retaliation for opposing discrimination; filing charges; and testifying, assisting or participating in an investigation, proceeding or hearing.

Tennessee Disability Act

The Tennessee Disability Act (TDA), formerly the Tennessee Handicap Act, prohibits employers with eight or more employees from discriminating against employees and applicants for employment on the basis of a physical, mental or visual disability (including discrimination against a blind person for use of a guide dog), unless the disability prevents the individual from performing his or her job duties or impairs his or her job performance.

In contrast to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the TDA does not require small employers to provide a reasonable accommodation. However, the ADA's accommodation requirements apply if an employer has, or when the employer reaches, 15 or more employees.

English-Only Policies

State law expressly allows an employer to adopt English-only policies to the extent that:

  • There is a business necessity for the policy; and
  • Employees have been notified of the policy.

Whistleblower and Anti-Retaliation Protections

The Tennessee Public Protection Act (TPPA) prohibits an employer from discharging an employee solely because the employee refused to participate in, or remain silent about, illegal activities. Employees fired in violation of this provision may sue for retaliatory discharge and the following remedies:

  • Damages;
  • Reasonable attorney fees; and
  • Costs.

Tennessee law also contains anti-retaliation protections for:

  • Employees who report health and safety violations;
  • Health care providers who experience a detrimental change in employment status due to reporting child abuse; and
  • Terminated employees who file for workers' compensation benefits.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on EEO, diversity and employee relations practices in Tennessee can be found in the Tennessee Employee Handbook Table of Contents, Disabilities (ADA): Tennessee, EEO - Discrimination: Tennessee, Employee Discipline: Tennessee, Tennessee Workplace Labor and Employment Law Posters and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in Tennessee? Federal requirements can be found in Disabilities (ADA): Federal, EEO - Discrimination: Federal and Employee Discipline: Federal.

Recruiting and Hiring

Key Tennessee requirements impacting recruiting and hiring are:

E-Verify

The Tennessee Lawful Employment Act requires private employers with six or more employees to verify that all newly hired employees are eligible to work in the US either by using the federal E-Verify system or by requiring newly hired employees to provide documentation that proves identity and work eligibility such as:

  • A valid Tennessee driver's license or photo identification;
  • A valid driver's license or photo identification from another state where the license requirements are at least as strict as those in Tennessee;
  • A birth certificate issued by a US state, jurisdiction or territory;
  • A US government issued certified birth certificate;
  • A valid, unexpired US passport;
  • A US certificate of birth abroad (DS-1350 or FS-545);
  • A report of birth abroad of a US citizen (FS-240);
  • A certificate of citizenship (N560 or N561);
  • A certificate of naturalization (N550, N570 or N578);
  • A US citizen identification card (I-197 or I-179); or
  • Valid alien registration documentation or other proof of current immigration registration recognized by the US department of homeland security that contains the individual's complete legal name and current alien admission number or alien file number (or numbers if the individual has more than one number).

Private employers with 50 or more employees must use E-Verify to verify the work authorization status of employees hired on or after January 1, 2017.

Drug and Alcohol Testing

An employer may test applicants and employees for drug and alcohol use pursuant to its written policies, which have been made available to employees. An employer's testing policy must adhere to specific statutory requirements.

While drug and alcohol testing is permitted, it is limited. For example, while employees may be tested for controlled substances at any time, applicants may only be tested after receiving a conditional offer of employment.

Criminal History

An employer in Tennessee may conduct criminal history background checks. Some employers are required to conduct criminal history background checks (e.g., applicants for law enforcement positions). An employer that is not required to conduct criminal history background checks should avoid:

  • Basing employment decisions on arrests not resulting in convictions; or
  • Eliminating an applicant from consideration solely because of his or her criminal convictions, unless those convictions impact the applicant's suitability for employment.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on recruiting and hiring practices in Tennessee can be found in Immigration, Form I-9 and Work Visas: Tennessee, Preemployment Screening and Testing: Tennessee and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in Tennessee? Federal requirements can be found in Immigration, Form I-9 and Work Visas: Federal and Preemployment Screening and Testing: Federal.

Wage and Hour

Key Tennessee requirements impacting wages and hours are:

Break Periods

A Tennessee employer with five or more employees must provide a 30-minute unpaid meal break to employees scheduled to work six consecutive hours. An exception applies to workplace environments that, by the nature of business, provide for ample opportunity to rest or take an appropriate break. The meal break may not be scheduled during or before the first hour of scheduled work.

Breastfeeding Breaks

For employees that have an infant child, an employer must provide a reasonable, unpaid break time each day for the employee to express breast milk, unless this would disrupt the employer's operation. If possible, this break should run concurrently with any other break time the employer provides.

An employer must also provide a private, sanitary location - other than a toilet stall - for such employees to express breast milk. The location should be close to the employee's work area.

Child Labor

Child labor laws in Tennessee restrict the occupations in which minors may be employed and the number of hours and times during which they may work.

Except for certain exemptions, minors under 14 years of age may not be employed.

Minors in Tennessee are prohibited from working in any occupation that interferes with their schooling, health or well-being, or that involves:

  • Driving motor vehicles;
  • Mining;
  • Logging;
  • Roofing;
  • Excavation;
  • Manufacturing or storing explosives or articles containing explosive components;
  • Manufacturing brick, tile and kindred products;
  • Exposure to radioactive substances and to ionizing radiations;
  • Slaughtering, meat-packing, processing or rendering;
  • Wrecking, demolition and ship-breaking operations;
  • Posing or modeling while engaged in sexual conduct;
  • Selling merchandise to customers at the customer's residence, at a customer's place of business or in public places such as street corners or public transportation stations (note: this restriction applies only to youths under age 16);
  • Taking orders for or serving intoxicating beverages;
  • Employment in an establishment where the average monthly gross receipts from the sale of intoxicating beverages exceed 25 percent of the total gross receipts; or
  • The operation of:
    • Any sawmill, lath mill, shingle mill or cooperage-stock mill;
    • Power-driven woodworking machines;
    • Elevators and other power-driven hoisting apparatuses;
    • Power-driven metal-forming, punching and shearing machines;
    • Hazardous power-driven bakery machines or paper products machines; or
    • Circular saws, band saws and guillotine shears.

Minors ages 14 and 15 may not work:

  • During school hours;
  • Between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., if the next day is a school day;
  • Between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. (federal child labor laws do not allow a minor to work past 7:00 p.m. from Labor Day to June);
  • More than three hours a day on school days;
  • More than 18 hours a week during a school week;
  • More than eight hours a day on nonschool days; or
  • More than 40 hours a week during nonschool weeks.

Minors ages 16 and 17 may not work:

  • During hours when the minor is required to attend classes; or
  • Between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., Sunday through Thursday evenings preceding a school day, except with parental or guardian consent.

With parental consent, a minor may work until midnight up to three nights Sunday through Thursday.

Minor employees scheduled to work six consecutive hours are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid rest or meal period. The break may not be scheduled during or before the first hour of scheduled work activity.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on wage and hour practices in Tennessee can be found in the Tennessee Employee Handbook Table of Contents, Hours Worked: Tennessee, Child Labor: Tennessee, Tennessee Workplace Labor and Employment Law Posters and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in Tennessee? Federal requirements can be found in Hours Worked: Federal and Child Labor: Federal.

Pay and Benefits

Key Tennessee requirements impacting pay and benefits are:

Health Care Continuation Coverage

In Tennessee, group health policies issued to employers, regardless of size, generally must include continuation and conversion coverage. Continuation overage must be extended to employees and their covered dependents whose coverage terminates, if the employees and their covered dependents have been continuously insured under the group policy for three months prior to the termination of coverage.

Unlike federal COBRA, Tennessee continuation coverage must be made available regardless of the reason for termination, unless the group policy was terminated:

  • In its entirety; or
  • For the insured class to which the employee belonged.

The period of continuation coverage is the remainder of the month in which coverage ends plus an additional three months. However, if coverage terminates because of divorce or the death of the insured employee, coverage continues for the remainder of the month in which coverage ends plus 15 additional months. If an individual loses coverage during pregnancy, coverage continues for the remainder of the month in which coverage ends plus a period of not less than six months after the pregnancy ends.

Individuals who elect continuation coverage must pay 100 percent of the group premium.

Pay Frequency

The Tennessee Wage Regulation Act requires an employer with five or more employees to pay wages at least semimonthly on regular paydays established in advance. An employer may pay wages more frequently. An employee who is absent on payday must be paid on demand.

Wages paid on a semimonthly schedule must be paid as follows:

  • All wages earned and unpaid prior to the first day of any month must be paid by the 20th of the following month; and
  • All wages earned and unpaid prior to the 16th of any month must be paid by the 5th of the next month.

Wage Deductions

Under Tennessee law, an employer may not make any deductions from an employee's pay without the employee's prior written authorization.

Once an employer has authorization, it may make the following deductions:

  • For health insurance;
  • For uniforms provided to employee;
  • To recover the amount of a loan or salary advance made to an employee; and
  • To cover cash shortages or breakage, if the deductions do not reduce the employee's wages to less than minimum wage and the shortage is from a cash register or cash box used only by the employee.

An employer may offset the amount of an employee's debt to the employer against the employee's wages under certain conditions, which generally include entering into a written agreement with the employee and notifying the employee in advance.

An employer is prohibited from making the following deductions:

  • From employees' tips or mandatory service charges; or
  • To pay for lost, stolen or damaged property.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on pay and benefits practices in Tennessee can be found in Health Care Continuation (COBRA): Tennessee, Payment of Wages: Tennessee, Tennessee Workplace Labor and Employment Law Posters and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in Tennessee? Federal requirements can be found in Health Care Continuation (COBRA): Federal and Payment of Wages: Federal.

Attendance and Leave

Key Tennessee requirements impacting attendance and leave are:

Parental Leave

An employer with 100 or more permanent, full-time employees must allow eligible employees to take up to four months of leave (paid or unpaid) for:

  • Adoption;
  • Pregnancy;
  • Childbirth; and
  • Nursing an infant.

To be eligible for leave, an employee must be employed on a full-time basis and must have worked for the employer for at least 12 consecutive months. To be eligible for reinstatement, an employee must provide at least three months' notice of the anticipated departure date, length of leave and intention to return to full-time employment after leave.

Voting Leave

Tennessee law provides that any employee entitled to vote in an election held in the state may be absent to vote for a reasonable period, not to exceed three hours. An employer is prohibited from:

  • Subjecting an employee to any penalty or reduction in pay for voting; and
  • Terminating, threatening to terminate or coercing an employee based on how he or she voted or whether he or she voted.

Part-time voting machine technicians may take unpaid leave from full-time employment for the days required to perform the technician duties. The employer may not require the employee to use vacation or other leave time on those days.

Jury Duty Leave

An employee who presents a state or federal court jury duty summons to his or her employer is entitled to be excused from work for each day the jury service exceeds three hours. An employer with more than four employees on a regular basis must provide paid leave, less any compensation the employee receives for serving as a juror. An employer is not required to pay for more time than the employee actually spent serving and traveling to and from jury duty. An employer is prohibited from terminating or in any way discriminating against an employee on jury duty.

Military Leave

A private employer must provide an unpaid leave of absence when an employee is ordered to duty or for training purposes.

Volunteer Firefighter and Rescue Squad Leave

Employees who are members of a volunteer firefighter organization or rescue squad may take time off from work to respond to emergencies. An employer may not terminate such employees if they are absent from or late to work, but it may request proof of the reason for the absence or lateness.

An employer is not required to pay employees for this time off, but it may charge the time off against the employee's regular pay.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on attendance and leave practices in Tennessee can be found in the Tennessee Employee Handbook Table of Contents, FMLA: Tennessee, Jury Duty: Tennessee, Other Leaves: Tennessee, USERRA: Tennessee and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in Tennessee? Federal requirements can be found in FMLA: Federal, Jury Duty: Federal, Other Leaves: Federal and USERRA: Federal.

Health and Safety

Key Tennessee requirements impacting health and safety are:

Smoking in the Workplace

Tennessee's Non-Smoker Protection Act prohibits smoking in most enclosed places, including public areas and private workplaces. While it does not require a minimum distance of smoke-free area from entrances and exits, an employer should avoid allowing outdoor smoking areas to contaminate indoor air or enter the building through exits, windows or air-intake ventilation. An employer must inform workers and visitors of the ban and clearly post signage indicating the facility is smoke-free at entrances and exits. Exceptions apply.

Occupational Safety and Health

Tennessee has a federally approved State Plan that covers the safety and health of private employees. Tennessee's Occupational Safety and Health Act covers all private employers, excluding railroad employment, private sector maritime activities, military bases, federal employment, the United States Postal Service, employment at Tennessee Valley Authority facilities and workplaces regulated by other federal agencies.

Although the majority of state standards mirror the federal requirements, some state rules are more extensive (e.g., bloodborne pathogens, air contaminants and hazard communication).

Weapons in the Workplace

An employer may prohibit weapons on its premises, but it must post appropriate notices in prominent locations.

An employer may not prevent an employee from keeping a gun in his or her own car, even in a private parking area. An individual with a proper license may store a firearm or ammunition in a privately owned vehicle (not an employer-owned car) without criminal or civil consequences as long as:

  • The vehicle is parked in a place it has permission to be; and
  • The firearm or ammunition is kept from ordinary observation when the permit holder is in the vehicle; or
  • The firearm or ammunition is both hidden and locked in an approved fashion when the permit holder is not in the vehicle.

An employer will not be held liable for damages, injury or death resulting from a firearm that is stored or transported properly under the law.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on health and safety practices in Tennessee can be found in the Tennessee Employee Handbook Table of Contents, Employee Health: Tennessee, HR and Workplace Safety: Tennessee, Workplace Security: Tennessee, Tennessee Workplace Labor and Employment Law Posters and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in California? Federal requirements can be found in Employee Health: Federal, HR and Workplace Safety (OSHA Compliance): Federal and Workplace Security: Federal.

Organizational Exit

Key Tennessee requirements impacting organizational exit are:

Termination Pay

An employer with five or more employees must pay an employee who quits or is fired his or her full wages by the later of:

  • The next regular payday; or
  • 21 days from the date of the termination.

An employer must pay an employee for accrued vacation or other compensatory time if its policy or employment contract provides for payment. However, the law does not require an employer to provide paid or unpaid vacation time or establish a written vacation pay policy.

Plant Closings and Reduction in Operations Act

Under Tennessee's Plant Closings and Reduction in Operations Act, an employer with 50-99 full-time employees in the state is required to provide 60 days' advance notice of any plant closing, modernizing, relocation beyond 50 miles or reduction in force that affects 50 or more employees during a three-month period. Notice must be provided to the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development and to all affected employees. The Act does not apply to reductions in operations that result solely from a labor dispute, that occur at a construction site or other temporary workplace or that result from seasonal factors.

Be aware that where there is overlap between federal, state and/or local law, complying with the law that offers the greatest rights or benefits to the employee will generally apply.

Additional information on organizational exit practices in Tennessee can be found in Involuntary Terminations: Tennessee, Payment of Wages: Tennessee and Does This Law Apply to My Organization in Tennessee? Federal requirements can be found in Involuntary Terminations: Federal and Payment of Wages: Federal.