By Kenneth Bredemeier
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 20, 2007 8:27 PM
Most workers in the United States are employed at will, a term that essentially means they can quit -- or be fired -- without reason. But does that mean employees have no protection from their employers' whims?
That's what this worker wonders:
I work in Virginia, which is an "at-will" state. Does that mean if you are fired or laid off there's no recourse at all?
Most states and the District of Columbia are considered at-will states, says Bill Bethune, a Washington lawyer who handles corporate cases. This means that employers can fire an employee just as freely as a worker can quit for another opportunity. (Different states have varied exceptions to that general rule, notes Bethune, such as probationary periods after which firings must be for cause.)
So does that mean workers employed at will have no options if they are let go? It does not, says Bethune. The right to dismiss workers at will is not absolute.
Under federal law, an employer cannot fire an employee because of race, gender, religion or disability, among other stipulations.
And many states have added additional worker protections, adds Bethune. In Virginia, for example, a mother cannot be fired for breastfeeding her baby. In D.C., Maryland and parts of Virginia, a worker can't be fired because of their sexual orientation. Also in the District, firings based on a worker's family responsibilities, political affiliation or personal appearance are prohibited.
If one suspects that they were fired for improper reasons, they have options. Union members or those with personal service contracts can file a grievance claim. This requires a detailed investigation into the circumstances leading up to the firing -- and could result in a reversal, if the employer is found to be in violation, Bethune adds. Unfortunately, non-union workers are on their own, he continues. If they feel they've been wrongfully dismissed, they can certainly take legal action. Unlike union workers, however, they'll have to incur those costs.
Kenneth Bredemeier has six years of experience writing about the workplace. On the Job, a column addressing real worker questions about office relationships, corporate policies and workplace law, is written exclusively for washingtonpost.com. To submit a question, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.