An Overview of Major State and Federal Employment Laws

Labor is the biggest part of any city’s budget, which makes it extremely important to keep up-to-date on the latest laws, trends and court cases in the area of hiring, motivating, managing and terminating members of your workforce.

Municipal employers must comply with a wide array of state and federal personnel laws. It is important to enlist the assistance of a city attorney to ensure compliance with the law that applies in your particular situation. This is by no means an exhaustive list of federal or state laws that impact municipal employers.

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA)

The ADAAA and the earlier Americans with Disabilities Act provides a broad scope of protection for employees and provides that courts need to allow ADA coverage “to the maximum extent permitted.” To be protected under the ADA, a person has to be an individual with a disability who can perform essential job functions, with or without reasonable accommodations. A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

At-Will Employment

Iowa is an “employment-at-will” state, meaning that an employer or employee may terminate the relationship at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all so long as that reason is not discriminatory in nature or violates other applicable state or federal laws. The concept of at-will employment can be limited by collective bargaining agreements, individual contracts and personnel policies.

Civil Service

Chapter 400 of the Code of Iowa establishes a system where certain types of employees are selected based on professional merit, generally through examinations designed to determine the qualifications of applicants and individuals seeking promotions. Locally appointed civil service commissions administer the provisions of the law. The law applies to all cities with a population of greater than 8,000 in 1980 and can also apply to cities fewer than 8,000 in population by action of the city council.

Collective Bargaining

Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Act is covered in Chapter 20 of the Code of Iowa and contains procedures by which employees can collectively bargain. The law details how employees can exercise those rights, including provisions for the determination of appropriate bargaining units, representation elections in which employees may select an employee organization to bargain on their behalf, prohibited practice provisions which prescribe certain conduct and activities, and provisions requiring the periodic reporting of finances by employee organizations. The Iowa Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) administers the provisions of the Act. Significant changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law was made in 2017, information on those changes can be found on the Iowa PERB Website

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime compensation, recordkeeping and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in federal, state and local governments.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave in a 12-month period for specified family and medical reasons. All cities must comply with FMLA; however, city employees are not eligible for FMLA leave if a city has fewer than 50 employees. Cities with fewer than 50 employees can still offer FMLA leave to employees if the city wishes to do so.

Harassment and Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. The law also makes it illegal to retaliate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. The law also requires that employers reasonably accommodate applicants’ and employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Many of the same concepts are also covered in the Iowa Civil Rights Act. In addition, the Iowa Civil Rights Act includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The laws are enforced at the federal level by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission and at the state level by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.   


Generally, all city employees are covered under the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS). However, there are specific exceptions. Part-time elected officials and elected officials paid on a fee basis are covered unless they specifically ask not to be covered. Another notable exception is if the employee is eligible for another retirement system such as the Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System of Iowa. IPERS is a defined benefit retirement program that is a partnership between employees and employers who split the costs of contributions. Most types of city employees are eligible for the Regular Membership Class of IPERS while many public safety positions are eligible for the Protection Occupation Membership Class.


The Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System of Iowa (MFPRSI) was created in 1990 by the Iowa Legislature to provide a retirement plan for certain police officers and firefighters. Cities required to participate in the program are those with public safety departments that were subject to the state’s civil service law in 1990; these cities needed to have a population of more than 8,000 in 1990. The plan also covers cities that voluntarily elect to participate in the retirement program; in total, the plan covers employees from 49 cities. Because the guidelines for the program are included in Code of Iowa Chapter 411, the system is often referred to as the 411 System.

Unemployment Insurance 

Unemployment Insurance is a federal-state program financed through employer payroll taxes. The intent is to pay benefits to eligible claimants during periods of unemployment when suitable work is not available.

Veterans’ Preference

Chapter 35C of the Code of Iowa provides the basis of the veteran’s ​​​preference law and states that military veterans of qualified wars and service shall receive a preference “in the appointment and employment over other applicants of no greater qualification.”

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