The at-will employment doctrine provides employers with considerable leeway when it comes to determining when and why employees may be fired. However, workers are protected from being discharged in certain situations. If it can be proven that someone’s rights have been violated, the employer could be at risk of a wrongful termination lawsuit. For example, an employment contract may have specific terms regarding what actions are cause for termination, and the employer must be able to prove that one of these has occurred. Understanding when it is unacceptable to fire an employee can help prevent a legal action against the company.
At-will Employment in Washington
Washington has an at-will employment law, which means that employers have the right to decide when to terminate an employee, and they do not have to provide notice in most cases. Workers have the similar freedom to leave the job at any time without provocation. While this may hamper job security, it allows individuals and companies to define their own employment relationships.
Wrongful Termination in Washington
There are numerous exceptions to at-will termination in Washington. Any employer that violates one of these exceptions is at risk of a lawsuit. Washington law states that an employee can send a written request to the company asking the reason for the discharge, and the company has to provide a written response within 10 days. Therefore, it is wise for employers to be able to supply some justification for the termination, such as documentation of work performance.
Some situations are governed by federal law, such as the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. When a company plans to lay off a number of employees at the same time or close a plant, the WARN Act may require it to provide employees with a 60-day notification. Whether the law applies in the situation depends on factors such as the size of the company and how many employees are affected.
Breach of Contract: Companies often have employee manuals and policies that dictate what actions or omissions are grounds for dismissal. These are considered implied contracts; they have the same effect as an employment contract and must be followed. Even if an employee violates the terms of a contract, an employer may still be required to provide an opportunity to correct the situation based on the company’s procedures.
Employment contracts that protect employees from at-will termination are often included in collective bargaining agreements. These usually outline what constitutes a valid reason for dismissing an employee, so an employer may fire an employee who is not in compliance.
Discrimination: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace. An employer cannot fire a person based on race, marital status, national origin, age, sex, disability or religion. It is also illegal to discriminate against a woman because she is pregnant, suffering a medical condition related to the pregnancy or giving birth.
Retaliation: Employees have the right to file complaints about unsafe conditions or discrimination, and federal law protects them from termination when they exercise those rights. An employee is also protected from termination when he or she participates in an EEOC investigation or court case.
Public Policy: Washington has a public policy exception that prevents employers from terminating employees if the behavior falls under one of four different categories identified by the court system. An employee must not be fired for exercising a legal right. For example, an employer may not fire a worker for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Employees also have the right to report an employer’s illegal activity, such as a violation of the Washington Minimum Wage Act. An employer cannot require an employee to engage in illegal activities as a requisite for maintaining the job. Employees must also be free to fulfill public duties, such as voting or serving in the military. Any termination that violates a state or federal statute is grounds for a lawsuit.
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