At-Will Employment – Understanding Your Rights and Limitations

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At-Will Employment – Understanding Your Rights and Limitations

Most states in the U.S. follow at-will employment agreements. The one exception is the state of Montana where it’s only in place during the first six months of employment or what’s considered a probationary period. This is a standard employment agreement where employers and employees understand a job is for an indefinite period of time and can be ended at any time by either employer or employee.

Some rights and limitations apply to companies and their employees. Understand how at-will employment works and what your rights and responsibilities are in terms of it.

Breaking Down a Companies and a Workers’ Rights

Both workers and their employers have rights that protect their interests when it comes to treatment in the workplace.

Employees have…

  • The right to a 10-minute uninterrupted work break for every four hours of work and one 30-minute meal break after every five hours of work where you are not working or interrupted.
  • The right to terminate employment as long as the reason for the termination isn’t a violation of employment laws.
  • The right to be free from harassment and discrimination.
  • The right to be paid regular wages and overtime.
  • The right to be treated fairly and with respect.
  • The right to work in a safe, healthy workplace.

Employers have…

  • The right to adjust wages and benefits as needed.
  • The right to determine work hours and schedules as necessary.
  • The right to discipline employees for misconduct.
  • The right to fire employees for poor performance.
  • The right to move to shorter shifts or on-call work schedules.
  • The right to set a dress code and grooming standards as long as they do not violate the laws.

While employers have these rights, they have to follow employment laws. They cannot just fire an employer or terminate jobs for any reason they come up with.

What About Responsibilities?

Those are your rights and your employers’ rights, what about your responsibilities? 

Workers are responsible for…

  • Being honest if you’ve done something wrong or noticed something is wrong.
  • Being prepared for work with any tools, attire, or equipment that are required.
  • Completing your work duties using the training you’ve received or instructions you’ve been provided with.
  • Following OSHA and workplace safety rules for your entire shift.
  • Showing up for work on time and on the days that you’re scheduled unless you have a valid reason such as illness.

Employers are responsible for:

  • Following federal employment discrimination laws.
  • Making sure workers get their required work breaks and meal breaks.
  • Paying wages on time and at rates that are at or above minimum wage and overtime rates.
  • Providing employees with the training, instructions, and equipment needed to do a job correctly and safely.
  • Taking complaints or feedback seriously and implementing changes if they’re needed to improve safety or health in a workplace.

That covers the basic rights and responsibilities of employers and employees as provided through at-will employment. However, there are several exceptions that you need to know.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

Every state sets its at-will employment laws, and these three exemptions may or may not be part of them. California allows all three exemptions.

  1. Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

This exception requires employers to act in good faith. A business cannot give a fake reason for why an employee was terminated. It could also be considered an unlawful termination if a well-liked, highly-praised worker is about to become tenured but is terminated just before the tenure date. 

Here are the states that do not follow the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing:

  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  1. Implied Contract Exemption

If an employee handbook, supervisor, HR person, or other worker makes statements or acts in ways that lead an employee to believe they will only be terminated or fired for “just cause,” that’s an implied contract. It’s the rule to follow, even if the employee’s onboarding paperwork says the employment is at-will. 

These states do not use the implied contract exemptions:

  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  1. Public Policy Exemption

If an employee’s termination would be a violation of one of four areas of public policy, it’s a violation of employment laws. 

  • Exercising your rights (Such as filing a workers’ compensation claim after getting injured on the job)
  • Performing duties that are in the public interest (Such as jury duty or National Guard duties)
  • Refusing to act against the law (Such as refusing to commit perjury to protect the business owner)
  • Reporting workplace violations (Such as bathroom breaks being denied during shifts)

These states do not allow public policy exemptions:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Nebraska
  • New York
  • Rhode Island

No matter which state is involved, all states must abide by federal and state discrimination laws. Most workers cannot be fired or terminated for any of these discriminatory reasons:

  • Age 
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Genetic information
  • National origin
  • Pregnancy
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual discrimination
  • Whistleblowing

We mentioned “most workers.” Some workers are exempt from at-will employment. Union workers are under a collective bargaining agreement that’s negotiated by their union representative. The union contract terms dictate when and how you can be terminated or fired. If you are fired or terminated and it’s not in compliance with your contract, contact your union rep for guidance.

Public sector employees are not going to have at-will employment. The same is true of a contract worker. The agreement that a contractor signed will determine how you can be terminated.

Workers who are protected under FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) cannot be fired or terminated. The same is true of a woman who is on pregnancy leave or a military member who is deployed or sent for training. Protected employment is another exception to at-will employment rules.

A newer exception that’s being passed in some states involves being terminated for your off-duty activities. As states legalize marijuana, protection is needed to make sure that people who smoke are not penalized for their participation in this legal act. It’s known as the “Smoker’s Rights Act” in Colorado and other states. In California, Governor Newsom passed AB 1288 and it will take effect on January 1, 2024.

Work With a California Employment Discrimination Attorney

While at-will employment is the default employment status in all states except Montana, employers are held to standards that ensure employees are not fired or terminated without just cause. Meanwhile, employees can quit their jobs for any reason and at any time. The ultimate goal is to make it fair and to resolve disputes quickly for both sides.

What happens if you were fired or terminated in a manner that you believe is unlawful? If you do not have an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, you can file a complaint for unlawful termination. While you can leave your job at any time and for any reason unless you’ve signed a contract stating otherwise, your employer has to follow the laws. Ignoring the laws can become costly to the business if a lawsuit is filed.

If you were fired, terminated, or tried to leave your job and were treated unlawfully, reach out to Shegerian Conniff for guidance. Our employment lawyers can look at your complaint and offer insight into whether your grievance is valid and what the next steps are. Reach us for a free consultation.

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