employment rights

Your “Employee-at-Will” Rights


While union members and government employees generally have some protection from unfair treatment by their employers, and certain forms of discrimination are illegal in any workplace, most workers are employed “at will” and therefore have no rights when they are treated unfairly or terminated without a good reason.

employment rights

American workers have limited legal protection for workplace rights. The legal relationship between employers and employees in this country is based upon the “employment at will doctrine,” which presumes that an employee has no right to continued employment and may be terminated at any time by an employer, whether or not there is just cause for the termination. The employment at will doctrine creates an imbalance, with employees serving at the pleasure of employers and being subject to whatever terms employers choose to establish. Unless specific statutes have been violated by an employer, employees have no legal remedy for such things as unfairness in performance evaluations, unjustifiable denials of promotions and pay increases, workplace bullying by supervisors and co-workers, intrusions into the personal lives and personal privacy of employees, and terminations of employment without just cause.

Federal and state laws prohibit employment discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability, but these laws provide no protection from other forms of unfairness in the workplace. Members of unions have collective bargaining protection from unfair treatment, government employees may have civil service protection from unfair treatment, and some private sector employees have contracts with their employers that protect them from terminations without just cause. But most private sector employees are on their own in their dealings with their employers, and are subject to whatever terms their employers choose to establish. They may be terminated for whatever reasons their employers might have, including arbitrary and unfair reasons.

Laws in most states permit an employee to sue for the “tort for wrongful discharge.” This type of law suit provides some relief for employees from the employment at will doctrine, but is not available for unfairness in general. Instead, an employee must have been terminated for specific reasons, and these reasons do not cover most unfair terminations of workers.

Federal and state laws require payment of minimum wages and overtime pay, and provide for family and medical leave, workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries, and unemployment insurance benefits. Most employers comply, or attempt to comply, with their legal obligations under these laws, but there are major employers for which noncompliance is standard operating procedure. State and local agencies are available to bring enforcement actions under these laws, and employees may bring private law suits on their own.

Federal laws provide jurisdiction to the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce prohibitions against employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability. EEOC aggressively seeks to protect American workers from discrimination. It receives charges of discrimination from aggrieved individuals, brings law suits in federal court based upon some of the charges that are filed, and brings EEOC-initiated law suits. But limitations in the funding of EEOC and in the scope of its jurisdiction seriously limit the extent to which EEOC can protect workers. Victims of discrimination filed an average of more than 80,000 charges with EEOC each year during the ten year time period from 1994 through 2003. During the same ten year time period, however, EEOC brought an average of fewer than 600 law suits each year. EEOC lawyers are highly skilled and dedicated to their mission, but these statistics reveal how unlikely it is for any particular victim of discrimination to be represented by EEOC in court.

Also, the case processing jurisdiction of EEOC extends only to investigating charges, attempting to conciliate charges, bringing suit on behalf of persons who file charges, and bringing EEOC initiated law suits. EEOC may not demand compliance with the law, regardless of how outrageous a violation of federal law might be. As a result, when an employer refuses to agree to a voluntary conciliation of a meritorious charge, the employee who filed the charge has no option other than to bring a private law suit in federal court. Those who bring these law suits can obtain the assistance of excellent lawyers who specialize in representing employees in employment law matters. But most victims of employment discrimination cannot afford to hire a lawyer, and most do not have cases with the strong evidence and substantial money damages necessary for lawyers to be able to take the cases on a contingency basis. The result is that many, if not most, victims of unlawful employment discrimination receive no remedy for violations of their legal rights, even though they have done everything they can do to obtain remedy.

Workplace Fairness advocates changes in the legal relationship between employers and employees, with elimination of the employment at will doctrine, the addition of a requirement for just cause for the termination of employees, and protection for fair treatment of employees in other aspects of employment. Workplace Fairness also advocates increased funding for EEOC to help its dedicated employees in their efforts on behalf of American workers.