It happens more often than people like to think. It is perhaps the most frequently asked question I get as a lawyer. Well, except for the one about ‘how can I represent someone I know is Guilty ?’
But here it is. The boss calls you, an employee, into his office for a meeting. During the meeting, he informs you that your job is history, that you are fired. You, the employee are given no explanation, only that you are told you have thirty minutes to clear out your belongings and leave the premises.. You protest in vain that you are doing good work and that there have been no disciplinary problems that warrant your dismissal. Can the employer do this?
THE “AT WILL” EMPLOYMENT DOCTRINE
In Florida, most employees usually are regarded as employees “at will.” This means that the employee works at the will of the employer and the employer can fire the worker for any reason at any time. It has been said that the worker can be terminated for “a good reason, a bad reason, or for no reason at all.”
The at will rule allows an employer to terminate employees for almost any reason. For example, Floridia courts have said that employers can terminate employees for refusing to commit a crime, reporting crimes committed by other employees, filing a workers’ compensation claim, filing for bankruptcy, and testifying against the employer in a court proceeding.
Pretty amazing, huh? One case, years ago, occurred just when I was starting to practice in Florida. An employee was ordered by his employer to remove live coral from a reef at John Pennekamp State Park. He refused and was fired. “But I can’t do that,” he proclaimed; ” It’s a crime to remove live coral…” And he was right. It was a crime to remove live coral. Did not matter. The courts still upheld his firing.
Here’s another one, even more frightening. In 1991, a Mike Walsh reported that an airline, where he was a flight engineer, fired him after he publicly revealed mechanical difficulties in pre-flight inspections of aircraft. He should be a hero, right ? The Court upheld his firing. Florida does not recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge. Of course there are exceptions.
The exceptions to this rule are when someone fires you in violation of federal laws because of your age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or physical disability. If a worker thinks he or she was terminated for one of these illegal reasons, and if that belief is eventually upheld in court or otherwise, the fired employee may be able to recover compensation or, in some instances, even get his or her job back.
Certain jurisdictions, like Broward County, where I practice, have also progressively passed legislation that prevents you from being fired because of your sexual orientation. There is a lot more on this on another one of my pages that deal with sexual orientation discrimination.
Other Federal laws protect rights to safety on the job, wage and hour payments, employee benefit plans, family and medical leave, and union activity. In addition, public (government) employees have rights under the Constitution and may be able to appeal adverse employment actions through a grievance system
The second series of exceptions, of course, also are provided when you have a contract of employment. This gives you a proprietary or legal interest in your job. You have standing to sue an employer who breaches that contract. Just as he would have the right to sue you if you are in breach. But employment contracts can also limit your freedoms to work elsewhere, with non-competition covenants. These are particularly used with media and sales clients. So you have to be careful about what you sign, and talk to a lawyer before you sign those papers, not afterwards.
THE HISTORY OF THE AT WILL DOCTRINE
The “at will” employment doctrine and the behavior of employers who benefitted from it was one of the main forces behind the rise of labor unions in the early 1900s. Employees who joined a labor union could bargain as a group with their employer for a contract that applied to all employees who were part of the union. The labor contracts usually provided that the employer could not terminate, demote or punish an employee without good cause. Often, the contracts provided a grievance procedure that employees could use when they were treated unfairly.
To combat the power of labor unions, many employers began lobbying the politicians in state government for a return to “at will” employment. Today, business interests often call the at will rule “right to work.” The right to work is only a new name for the old “at will” rule. An employee’s right to work means that he can be fired for a good reason, bad reason or no reason at all. This persists even today in states like Florida, which are called “at will employment” states.
TREND AWAY FROM “AT WILL” RULE IN OTHER STATES
Over the past 30 years, many states have started to move away from the “at will” employment rule. In those states, employees who are terminated wrongfully can sue their employers for wrongful discharge and obtain money damages for their lost wages and lost opportunities.
Florida is one of the only remaining states in the United States that still refuses to provide any sort of job protection for employees. In case after case, the Florida courts continue to say that an employer can fire an employee regardless of the employer’s motives, and that the employee may not challenge the employer’s decision in any way.
CAN WORKERS DO ANYTHING?
Can Florida workers change Florida’s employment laws? The only way to change the current law in Florida is for workers to express their opinions to their legislators. Every year, lobbyists convince legislators to vote against laws that would protect workers. Employees also have a right to lobby their state representatives and senators, asking for changes in the treatment of workers under the law. Most importantly, workers should carefully examine the voting records of their representatives, educate themselves about the issues, and let their voices be heard.