Wrongful termination laws offer employers a set of regulations to follow when firing an employee. Both federal and state statutes offer guidance on those times it is permissible to fire a worker and when it is not. For instance, employers are not permitted to fire an employee due to religious beliefs, ethnicity or nation of origin. Employers must also honor any contractual obligations when letting an employee go. Though many states offer what is known as at-will employment, adhering to all prevailing wrongful termination laws will prevent employers from being subject to legal ramifications in the event of an unlawful firing.
At-will Employment in Illinois
Illinois is designated as an at-will employment state. This means that in many cases workers may be released from employment at any time, for any reason and without the requirement of advanced notice. However, some exceptions do apply. When contracts are in place between employer and employee, the employer must follow those stipulations when firing a worker. Additionally, employers are also beholden to any state or federal statutes related to wrongful termination to remain in full compliance with the law.
Wrongful Termination in Illinois
As stated above, exceptions to at-will employment doctrines do exist. Violation of these laws can incur strict legal ramifications for employers, such as being ordered to reinstate a previously terminated employee, payment of back or front wages, punitive damages and coverage of the employee’s legal fees. For instance, employees in Illinois may not be fired for reasons that are clear violations of public policy. Also, Illinois employees cannot be fired for participating in so-called protected activities, such as filing a worker’s compensation claim.
Breach of Contract: In the event that a contract exists between an employer and employee, stipulations within that contract must be followed to ensure employers remain in compliance. For instance, if a contract outlines that workers can only be fired for specific reasons, such as those related to performance or productivity, these stipulations override at-will employment statutes in Illinois. If existing contractual stipulations are not honored, employers may be subject to legal action. Contracts between employers and employees can be both written and oral.
Discrimination: Discrimination is a common factor in many wrongful termination cases. According to federal law, employers are not permitted to fire a worker based on the following factors: disability, color/race, age, veteran status, religion and country of origin. Illinois honors these categories and offers additional protections: arrest record, sexual harassment, marital status, language and pregnancy. In Illinois, certain conditions apply when charging an employer with discrimination. In general, an employer must have 15 or more employees for discrimination charges to be investigated. However, public contractors or those working under the state government are exempt from the 15-employee stipulation. In addition, charges related to disability, sexual harassment or retaliation are also exempt from the 15-employee rule.
Retaliation: In addition to regulations related to discrimination, employers are also prohibited from firing employees in retaliation for legally protected activities. An example of a retaliatory firing would be terminating a worker for opposing a discriminatory policy in the workplace or requesting proper overtime payment. State and federal regulations also provide protections to employees engaged in so-called “whistleblower” activities. While these laws usually apply to public sector employees, Illinois workers employed in the private sector are also protected under the state’s whistleblower laws. These dictate that employees cannot be fired for notifying the proper authorities for work violations.
Public Policy: Public policy regulations are perhaps the most widely used exception to at-will employment laws. These laws dictate that employers cannot terminate a worker for reasons that would be in violation of any existing public policy doctrines. Examples include performing any act that is deemed to be in the public’s best interest, such as joining the National Guard, or reporting employer violations of applicable laws. In some cases, public policy laws can overlap with existing retaliation statutes.
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