At-will employment in Pennsylvania means just that – you can terminate an employee without cause, without a probationary period. If your employees work in the absence of a written contract, they’re at-will employees. In fact, the state presumes all employment at will unless otherwise agreed upon by you (the business owner) and employee. Of course, the law is a two-way street; your employee is free to leave employment any time they choose without prior notice. Just because you can terminate a worker without a good reason, doesn’t mean there are no repercussions for doing so. Rights for at-will employees in Pennsylvania are few, but those that do exist have clear lines with real penalties should you as a business owner cross them. Following these guidelines could ward off a wrongful termination suit from your company before it has the chance to get off the ground.
1. Violation of Employee Written Policies
If you hand your employee a handbook filled with the dos and don’ts of the job description, the employee now has every legal right to rely on that document to tell them what acceptable conduct is during the course of employment. As a business owner, you’re bound by the terms you enter into with your employee regarding acceptable work behavior and job expectations. Going against the provisions of your own written policies in effect violates a worker’s rights despite them being an at-will employee. While this action may not give them good course to file a lawsuit against your company should you terminates them, it could give the worker a clear path to obtaining unemployment benefits. For example, if your employee handbook lays out a system for punishing violations – verbal warning, written warning, etc. – and you fire an employee without following that written policy, the employee may have cause for a successful unemployment claim.
2. Federal Employment Rights
Federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender, religion, age, marital status, and disability (among others) apply to all but the tiniest of employers. If you or a representative of your company fires a worker because they’ve fathered a child out of wedlock, or because they practice a religion you doesn’t care for, your business is most likely in violation of one or more federal statutes. If you believe an employee intends to file a suit based on a wrongful termination for a protected characteristic, contact our Pennsylvania employment law attorneys today to discuss your case and your legal options.
3. Filing Worker’s Compensation Claims
It is illegal in Pennsylvania and other states across the country for you as an employer to terminate a worker because they filed a worker’s compensation claim. If an employee cannot work due to their injuries, you have the right to fill the position as needed, but you cannot legally bar the injured employee from returning to work as a form of retaliation for their claim. Additionally, the law provides protection for asserting rights to a hazard free work environment. It’s illegal to terminate a worker in retaliation for reporting a health or safety hazard to the appropriate governing body, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the former employee may have rights to pursue damages from the business owner. To protect yourself, it’s recommended you retain the services of experienced business attorneys to go over your legal obligations.
4. Violations of Public Policy
Of the three major exceptions to at-will employment regulations, Pennsylvania law recognizes just one – violations of public policy. While this exception applies to wrongful terminations based in retaliation, it also applies in situations where an employer attempts to compel an employee to break the law – federal or state. In short, you can’t legally require an employee to steal from customers or “cook the books” to conceal profits. The first case to recognize public policy as an exception to at-will employment laws occurred in 1959 in California, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.