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NYC Bill Would Ban Firing Most Workers Without a Good Reason

Commuters arrive at Grand Central station during morning rush hour in New York. Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

A New York City lawmaker is trying to ban most companies from firing workers without good reason, which could transform the balance of power between bosses and their employees.  

Most US employees work “at-will,” allowing companies to legally terminate them for almost any reason, or for no reason at all. In contrast, under a bill being unveiled Wednesday, New York City employees’ jobs would be legally protected unless their boss could demonstrate misconduct, unsatisfactory performance or a genuine economic need to eliminate their position. Workers who believe they are terminated without “just cause” would be able to bring claims before city enforcers, arbitrators or state court judges. 

The city already established such rights for tens of thousands of fast-food workers under a pair of laws that took effect in July 2021, making it one of the only places in the nation to provide those protections to non-union, private sector workers. Labor advocates said the legislation brings more job stability for vulnerable employees, empowers them to speak up about wrongdoing and shields them from getting fired for capricious reasons.

A federal judge for the Southern District Court of New York in February preserved the protections by dismissing a legal challenge to the law by the New York State Restaurant Association, which is appealing the ruling.

The association is among business groups in the city that have condemned the so-called just cause laws as a threat to the flexibility and discretion they say managers need to run their companies. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce said last year that the fast-food bill called into question “how we encourage small-business owners who will be vital to New York’s economic recovery.”

“We have no delusions about how hard this fight is going to be,” said City Council Member Tiffany Cabán, who plans to introduce the bill on Wednesday.

Cabán said she expects substantial pushback against her proposal but was confident it would garner strong support among the public and her colleagues on the council.

In an interview before becoming City Council speaker, Adrienne Adams, a sponsor of the fast-food worker legislation, said she wanted to see its protections extended to other businesses. “We’ve got a lot of industries where people are just treated lesser than,” she said last year. 

A spokesperson for Speaker Adams said she wouldn’t comment on legislation that hadn’t yet been introduced. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams said City Hall will review the legislation when it’s introduced.

Read More: Fast-Food Workers Are About to Become Much Tougher to Fire in New York

Expanded Protections 

The new, wider-spanning bill would expand the same protections to workers for fast-food employees to retail, finance and other sectors of the economy. There are carve-outs for construction companies and for short-term positions.

The bill would also restrict companies’ use of technology to surveil and assess workers’ performance, and would allow the city comptroller to bring cases on behalf of fired employees, even if those workers had signed “forced arbitration” clauses giving up their rights to sue.

“How can families feel economically safe and secure and build futures here in the city when they don’t know whether they’ll be fired on a whim tomorrow?” said Cabán, a Democratic Socialists of America member who chairs the council’s Women and Gender Equality committee and co-chairs its LGBTQIA+ Caucus. “If you talk to everyday people, it seems like the most commonsense thing: Well, yeah, my boss should give me a valid reason before terminating my employment.”

“Just cause” laws are among the most recent efforts by labor advocates who have been frequently stymied in US Congress to use city and state legislation to transform the workplace. 

New York City has been a leader among labor laws over the past decade, passing legislation guaranteeing swift payment for freelancers, advance notice of work schedules for retail and fast-food staff, and paid sick days. The 2021 fast food legislation followed a similar 2019 bill covering around 1,000 parking attendants in Philadelphia, and has helped inspire similar proposals in places like Illinois.

New York now has an opportunity to again “lead the way,” said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, a former council member who led the charge for last year’s fast-food worker protections. “Hopefully, as has happened in quite a few other areas of workers rights, other cities and states will follow, and hopefully someday Congress will too.”

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