Working as a Washington employment lawyer since 2000 and practicing California employment law for almost 30 years I have had cases brought before me countless times in which a person was fired without a legitimate reason, but I was unable to help them because they were an at-will employee. Because of this, I have decided to provide this basic overview of what an at-will employee is and what constitutes a wrongful termination.
What is an At-Will Employee?
When perusing your employment agreement you may notice the words at-will employee floating around and wonder what exactly that means. A generic definition for At Will Employee is:
“A common-law rule that an employment contract of indefinite duration can be terminated by either the employer or the employee at any time for any reason; also known as terminable at will.”
By this definition, an at-will employee can be fired, with or without notice, on a whim for any reason. An employer could terminate an employee simply because they don’t like the employee’s hair color or their favorite color. Most employees in the United States are at-will employees and if no contract is present stating that an employee cannot be terminated without good cause- employees are automatically considered at-will.
At will employees are fully at the mercy of their employer as the job description, salary, hours and title may change at any point in time with little notice and little protection from the law.
How Do I Know if I’m an At-Will Employee?
There are two different types of employees: contract and at-will. As stated earlier, most employees in the United States are at-will employees, but how do you know which you are?
Generally, unless you signed a contract stating you cannot be terminated without just cause, you are automatically assumed to be an at-will employee. Most of the time, employers will state you are at-will plainly in the employment contract or verbally.
How Does Being an At-Will Employee Affect my Wrongful Termination Case?
You may wonder if these employers can legally end the employment for any reason, what qualifies as a wrongful termination case and what protection is there is for at-will employees? Protection for at-will employees varies by state, and mostly the only real protection is if the employee can prove that they were fired due to race, religion, gender or another protected reason. If you have been terminated for any of the following reasons you may have a Washington wrongful termination case.
- Discrimination: employers are not allowed to discriminate regardless of the employee being considered at-will. Your employer cannot fire you based on race, religion, gender, disability, age, pregnancy status, or, in many states, sexual orientation or gender identity. If you have been discriminated against you may have a wrongful termination case.
- Breach of Contract: If you have a verbal or written contract with your employer and it is prematurely terminated then your employer breached the contract which gives you a wrongful termination claim.
- Employer Retaliation: your employer cannot terminate your employment in an attempt to retaliate for you exercising a right such as, reporting a health or safety violations to authorities or making a claim for harassment. If your employer terminates you in order to retaliate for one of these issues you may have a wrongful termination case.
- Illegal Acts: your employer cannot terminate you for refusing to commit an illegal act. Requiring you to violate safety, health or other laws is illegal and employees are protected from this.
- Taking Time Off Work: You may not be terminated for taking time from work for a protected purpose such as military service, voting or maternity leave. If you are fired after taking time off for one of these reasons you may need a wrongful termination attorney to defend your case.
What Can I Do If I’ve Been Wrongfully Terminated?
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated contact a Seattle wrongful termination attorney to review your case. You may contact our Bellevue employment law firm to schedule a free consultation through the proceeding link.