What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

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What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

The labor code in California and many other states follow the rule that employees are “at-will.” What does “at-will employment” mean? At-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee’s job without cause or notice. An employee has the right to quit without having to give notice, too. It’s important to understand what “cause” means in this case. As an at-will employee, it doesn’t mean an employer can terminate your job for any reason they choose. There are rules that businesses must follow.

Most at-will states have public policy exceptions in place that mean the management team cannot fire employees if it’s a violation of state or federal laws. Such as, your boss asks you to run an errand and park in a fire lane to avoid having to pay for a parking garage. You know that’s illegal and refuse. You can’t lose your job for refusing.

Most states have rules in place for public policies, implied contracts, implied-in-law contracts, and a “covenant of good faith and fair dealing.” Some states put exceptions in place for all or some of the following.

  • Implied Contracts – An implied contract is something employees believe they get as a benefit of work that’s not written down.
  • Implied-In-Law Contracts – An implied contract where employers may not offer a contracted term but are expected to follow the laws.
  • Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing – An implied contract where employers are expected to not go back on their word.

California has exceptions for implied employment contracts. If you believe your employment was continual and you’re fired saying you were only a temporary employee, you could have a wrongful termination case. However, the burden of proof is on the employee, and it can be challenging to prove an implied contract existed.

For example, you take a position with a marketing firm after the management team tells you they want someone who is settled with no plans to move. During your conversations, you learn that they want you to handle the accounts for companies that have signed two-year contracts. Six months later, your job is terminated, and you learn the owner’s niece is taking your position now that she’s graduated from college. With the two-year contracts talk, you figured this job would at least last for two years. You have a valid complaint.

While most states are at-will employment states, rules apply to terminating an employee’s position. A business must make sure there’s no way employment terminations could be construed as having been a discriminatory or unlawful act. A company cannot fire you if it violates state and federal labor laws and discrimination rules.

What Labor Rules Say About Terminating Employment

Under Article 4: Termination of Employment, employers can terminate an employee due to that employee’s death, the end of the specified terms or contracted length of employment, and the employee’s legal incapacity. If an employee fails to do their job correctly or continually fails to show up on time, the irresponsible acts can also lead to termination without a valid, lawful reason.

This is where employers have to be careful. They cannot terminate you for any reason that goes against the labor and discrimination laws. They cannot release you because a court orders your wages to be garnished due to a child support ruling, unpaid debt, etc. They also cannot fire you if you’re in a protected class. This includes:

  • Age (40+)
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Gender/Sexual Orientation
  • Genetic Information
  • Pregnancy/Childbirth/Breastfeeding
  • Race/National Origin
  • Religion

You cannot be fired for filing a discrimination complaint, reporting your employer for acts like falsifying taxes and other financial documents, or hiring underage workers. Whistleblowers are also protected from wrongful termination.

If your employer asks you to lie in court, and you refuse. You cannot be terminated for refusing to do something you know is illegal. You cannot be fired for taking time off following applicable FMLA rules, taking time off for jury duty, or serving in the military. You also cannot be fired for exercising a statutory right, such as filing for partial unemployment when your employer reduces hours during a slow period.

A hot topic right now is if you can be fired for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Los Angeles has one of the first school districts in the U.S. to require teachers and other school employees to get vaccinated or lose their job. That policy, while hotly debated, also led to a vaccination rate of 99.4%. Less than 250 teachers and staff in the L.A. Unified District refused to get vaccinated and lost their jobs. While employees can apply for exemptions for health or religious exceptions, the exemptions have to be valid to be approved. If you were fired for simply not wanting the vaccination, the school district is within its rights to end your employment.

What Do You Do If You Were Unjustly Fired?

Companies can mishandle at-will employment terminations. It may be a deliberate mistake or an unintentional one. If you were the victim of sexual harassment and lost your job because the company felt you were less valuable to the company than your harasser, your employer was in the wrong. An employment law attorney can help you file a sexual harassment and wrongful termination complaint.

A new mom cannot be terminated from her job for requesting a suitable space for expressing and storing her milk when she returns from maternity leave. A disabled worker cannot be terminated for asking for a wheelchair-accessible workspace, as long as the cost of accommodations is not detrimental to the company’s revenues.

Suppose you caught your company’s accountant incorrectly calculating overtime. When you complained and asked for the OT pay you were missing, your job was terminated. You have a valid complaint of wrongful termination.

On the other hand, you can lose your job in an at-will state and not have a complaint against your company. Say you work in a clothing store and sales have dropped since the competition moved in next door. There are three of you working in your department, and there’s too little work. Rather than pay you to stand around with nothing to do, your employer fires you. It’s hard to accept a termination, but the company had to take steps to avoid more of a financial hit.

Even if your employer has a valid reason for terminating your job, the employer must follow the labor laws related to your termination. Your employer must pay you for the work you’ve completed until the point of termination. If you worked three hours that week and were terminated, you are owed those three hours. If you had used personal and vacation days, you’re also due the cash equivalent for those days. What if they don’t? What if you’re not sure your employer followed the laws when firing you?

If you’ve been terminated from your job and believe your employer is in the wrong, call us. We offer free consultations and can help you understand if discrimination or wrongful termination laws apply to your case. Shegerian Conniff is available day and night. Take the first step and talk to our employment law specialists about your situation.

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