At-will employment is defined as an employer’s right to “terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability.” It’s the same as a worker’s right to quit or leave a job without notice or reason and not face a lawsuit. You don’t have to provide two weeks of notice before you leave your job. You can if you’d like to or it’s in your employment contract, otherwise, you’re free to leave when you want to.
Employers also have the right to change employment terms, such as benefits, scheduled work hours, mandatory overtime, or paid time off, without giving notice or paying any consequences. That’s all part of at-will employment.
It’s become a hot topic across the country because of the COVID vaccination, mask, and testing requirements. If you’re not aware of at-will employment, it’s an important concept to understand. You could show up for work, learn that you’re being dropped to part-time hours, and not have any legal recourse unless you have a contract in place stating otherwise. You might walk in, find out you have to start getting tested regularly, or lose your job.
Employees end up at the mercy of their employer unless they have an employment contract for protection. Employee contracts are usually only offered to workers who are part of a union. Here’s what you need to know about your rights when it comes to at-will employment.
Montana Is the Only State That Doesn’t Follow “At-Will Employment” Rules
Montana’s Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act (WDEA) overrides standard at-will employment rules. All other states in the U.S., including California, follow at-will employment doctrines. Unless you’re protected by a contract or one of the excluded classes listed in discrimination and harassment laws, your employer can fire or terminate your position without notice.
Suppose you’ve been working for your company for the past ten years. You show up for work and learn the company is letting you go. They don’t give you any notice. You’re handed your final paycheck and told to go home. That’s legal per at-will employment rules.
Worker Contracts Protect You
If you have an employee contract, that agreement can protect you from sudden employment termination. Union jobs have collective bargaining agreements that keep you from being terminated or fired without notice. Often with a collective bargaining agreement, employers have to lay off the newer workers first and protect the jobs of the more senior workers.
The terms of your employment contract offer the guidance you need to know if your employer is acting appropriately. You may find terms requiring your employer to provide you with three months of pay as part of a severance package, or they may need to offer you services to help you find a new job. Be sure to look over your contract to understand what they must do if your job ends.
A union contract or employment contract may not protect you from needing to get vaccinated or tested. You can’t expect these contracts to prevent you from having to follow new company policies. If you have any questions about contracts, make sure you talk to an expert in employment law and contracts for clarification.
At-Will Employment Rules Do Not Override Discrimination and Harassment Laws
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect people from discrimination based on color, nationality, race, religion, or sex/gender. Amendments over the years have added pregnant women, adults age 40 or older, people with disabilities, and genetic information to these protections.
If you learn you’re being fired because you’re older and costing the company too much money for health insurance, that’s age discrimination. You’re being fired illegally. If your boss finds out you’re pregnant and terminates your job rather than have to accommodate you for the next year or so, that’s also illegal.
Suppose you learn you’re losing your job due to your family’s genetic history of macular degeneration that might eventually rob you of your vision. You’re protected from terminations related to your genetics. If you’re LGBTQ, you cannot lose your job based on your gender or sexuality. At-will employment doesn’t override any of those situations.
Whistleblowers often find themselves fighting at-will employment rules. A Nevada woman was working at a medical clinic and reported unsafe practices like the use of expired medications and the use of contaminated medical supplies to OSHA. After an OSHA agent revealed her as the whistleblower, she lost her job.
She was confident she was fired for being a whistleblower and sued. But, her employer stated she was an at-will employee, making her termination legal, and her case was dismissed. She appealed the decision citing her whistleblower claim and won nine years later. Talk to an experienced attorney about whistleblower laws if you’re in a similar situation.
Recently, employees across the nation have been fighting COVID vaccine mandates with their employers. At-will employment rules apply to these situations and rarely is it in the employee’s favor.
Unvaccinated Employees May Not Be Protected
How does at-will employment impact some of the protections companies put in place during the pandemic? Many people believe that refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19 is their right. President Biden mandated employers push to get their workers vaccinated or take regular tests to ensure they don’t have COVID-19. OSHA mandated that businesses with 100 or more workers have weekly negative COVID tests or proof of vaccination. That’s led to companies requiring testing or vaccinations with their employees.
Can you keep your job and refuse to get vaccinated? The Supreme Court ruled against these mandates, apart from one requiring vaccinations of staff in medical facilities that accept Medicaid or Medicare. This adds to the confusion that many workers are experiencing. States throughout the U.S. are looking closely at at-will doctrines to clarify that it’s a private employer’s right to set their own mandates regarding vaccinations and testing.
If your job requires you to get vaccinated or provide a negative test each week, isn’t it illegal? Enforcement of testing or vaccine mandates is not tied to protected classes. EEOC laws don’t apply unless you have a valid religious or medical exemption preventing you from safely getting vaccinated.
In many cases, it’s coming down to companies deciding if they want to enforce their vaccine or test mandate as OSHA is backing. Companies like Citigroup, Ford Motor Company, Nike, and United Airlines aren’t making changes to their vaccination requirements. If your company does, you may not have any recourse without religious or medical exemption because of at-will employment rules.
A U.S. District Court judge in California ruled against several police officers suing the city, claiming the vaccination mandate violated their right to privacy. Instead, the judge threw out their case, telling them to prove the vaccination is against their religion.
Get Expert Advice
When you’ve been terminated from your job, get the information you can to learn why. Contact an attorney specializing in workplace discrimination complaints if you suspect you’ve lost your job due to your nationality, skin color, gender, or another protected class. Your employer cannot ignore workplace discrimination and harassment laws.
Shegerian Conniff’s attorneys are employment law specialists with plenty of trial experience. Our consultations are free, so be sure to reach out to us if you feel you’ve been mistreated. Our online form makes it easy for you to reach us at all hours, so don’t hesitate to contact us.