Most people dread getting fired from their job. Termination carries so many negative consequences from a lack of immediate income to the possibility of long-term placement issues. Under the American system of employment law; however, a termination is not always illegal. Not even close. In fact, most of the time, firing an employee is perfectly lawful. The American employment system is commonly known as at-will employment–in other words, any employee can quit for any reason and anyone can be fired for any reason. There are pros and cons to this system, but in general, the at-will system is incredibly flexible and does not unconscionably benefit either the employer or employee.
That said, at various times in the nation’s history, lawmakers, judges, and even employers and employees have decided that there are certain circumstances in which an employee should not be fired. Most of these exceptions to the rule of at-will employment are designed to remedy injustices in the workplace. Employees are generally unaware of where these circumstances exist, however.
The first restriction on an employer’s right to terminate an employee involves union membership. Historically, unions were formed to enact widespread workers’ rights reform in the workplace. The idea was simple. At-will employment meant that employers could fire employees at any time, but the reverse was also true. Employees could leave work at any time as well, and if they did so en masse (i.e. strike), then large blocks of employees could exercise considerable power and influence over employers.One of the more important factors of most collective bargaining agreements is a leveraging of an employer’s right to fire union workers. Union collective bargaining agreements want to protect union workers so that they are incentivized to join the union, therefore, making the union itself more powerful. If you are a union employee and have been terminated, your first step should be to consult with your union boss regarding the termination. It is likely that the collective bargaining agreement offers at least some protection in the event of termination.
Unions were the centerpiece of employee rights during the late nineteenth century, but contracts were all the rage during the early twentieth century. Employment contracts were popularized by employers both as a response to unions and due to the desire to further customize the at-will employment relationship. Like at-will employment, however, employment contracts work both ways. While employers are allowed to set the terms of employment, employees also have a say at the negotiating table.It is not uncommon for employees to trade longer hours and better services for job security. Many employers even want their highly skilled employees to have job security because it takes away these skilled employees’ ability to quit. Most employment contracts that provide job security for the employee require “cause” for an employee to be fired. For-cause termination clauses in contracts stipulate specific reasons for which an employee can be fired and protect employees from being terminated through no fault of their own.
Continuing with the historical trend of employment law, employment discrimination laws were the next major piece of employee protections. Employment anti-discrimination laws emerged during the civil rights movement. The nation’s federal employment discrimination laws prevent employees from being terminated due to their membership in a protected class. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 banned employment discrimination based on age against anyone over the age of forty (40). Next, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was passed to prohibit discrimination based on disability.The number of protected classes under federal law has since grown and now includes race, sex, pregnancy, national origin, religion, disability, age (for workers over 40), military service or affiliation, bankruptcy or bad debts, genetic information, and citizenship status. Anyone terminated because of any of those reasons may sue his or her employer for employment discrimination under the relevant federal law.
State statutes also provide extensive protection from employment discrimination. For example, in New York, it is unlawful to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, age, marital status, domestic violence victim status, disability, pregnancy-related condition, predisposing genetic characteristics, prior arrest or conviction record, and familial status. It is also illegal to retaliate against an employee for opposing unlawful discriminatory practices.
The most recent statutes to protect employees are whistleblower laws. Essentially, lawmakers wanted to protect employees who did a public service by shedding light on an employer’s wrongdoings and made it illegal to terminate an employee in retaliation for whistleblowing.
If you believe that you have been unlawfully terminated, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney immediately to assess your options. The Law Offices of Yuriy Moshes represents employees in New York and New Jersey who were unlawfully terminated. If you believe you may have an unlawful termination case, contact our offices for a free consultation.