Fired! Can they really legally do that?
by Peter Seeley
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Having job security is a major part of growing into a financially responsible adult, but just what can an employer fire you for? It turns out that not all employers need just cause to terminate an employment contract. It's something to think about before taking that job. Here's the investigative low-down on US labor laws.
Let's Define Wrongful Termination
It's not automatically illegal to be fired, even if the reason is sudden and without cause. This might come as a surprise, but first let's look at the legal definition of wrongful termination. An employer is committing it when they are firing an employee for any reason that directly contravenes the employee's contract or is outright illegal.
Illegal Rules for Termination
Next, it's important to establish just what these illegal reasons are. An employer is not allowed to fire you for any of the following:
- You are not allowed to be fired for any reasons which violate federal laws or public policy, including serving in the military, voting, or being called to jury duty.
- You are not allowed to be fired for any reasons that directly go against company policy or your employment contract, verbal or otherwise.
- You are not allowed to be fired for any discriminatory reasons, including your race, sexual orientation, or religion. Here, you are protected by federal laws against discrimination.
- You are not allowed to be fired in response to acting on your rights. For example, you can't be fired for filing a sexual harassment complaint against your employer.
- You are not allowed to be fired for whistleblowing, ratting out any illegal activities within the company. In fact, did you know there is a National Whistleblower Center that you can contact if you need help? Find the website at Whistleblowers.org.
What Does It Say in Writing?
Your employment contract is something you should look at thoroughly (preferably with the help of a professional attorney) before you take the job. Your contract states vital information about the job, including the hours you'll be working, your job description, and other important details like company policy. We are looking for a clause entitled "Termination." Does your contract state that your employer cannot fire you without cause? Good. If not, let's move on to what's called at-will employment.
Watch Out for At-Will Employment
It sounds almost so nondescript that it can easily be skipped over in even a three-page contract. At-will employment means that the contract between you and your employer is happening "at will." Unfortunately, this also means that firing you is subject to the same "at will" rule. In this case, your employer does not need to give a reason to fire you, and unless it is outright illegal, you likely will have little to no recourse.
Knowing Your State's Laws
At the time of writing, there are 42 US states that recognize exceptions to the at-will law, including employment contracts and reasons of public policy (like, for example, jury duty). You can find a list of these exceptions at the National Conference of State Legislatures' website. Keep in mind that there are eight US states that do not recognize any exceptions to the at-will law.
Here is one more thing. USA.gov encourages people to get in touch with their state's labor office to inquire about the laws regarding employment in your state first.
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More about Health
Discrimination in the workplace can be a huge concern for people who suffer with chronic illnesses or disabilities. An employer is not allowed to fire you for submitting a complaint regarding the health conditions or for putting in maternity or medical leave, especially when due to a disability. (When it comes to sick leave, again, check your state laws first.) The laws pertaining to health and employment include The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Wrongful Termination Lawsuits and You
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, then it could be time to seek recourse in the form of a wrongful termination lawsuit. How it will go from there depends on at-will laws, employment contracts, and your case. Your best bet is to consult with an attorney to find out if you have enough to take on the suit.
Do you know what your employment contract says? Are you familiar with the laws in your state? It's always better to be prepared even if you never turn out to need it, but especially when and if you do.
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