What Does Employment At Will Mean?

What Does Employment At Will Mean?

Most of us have heard that Louisiana is an “employment at will” state. In fact, 49 of the 50 states follow some version of the employment at will doctrine – Montana is the lone exception. But what does employment “at will” really mean?

At a basic level, employment at will simply means that an employer may fire a worker at any time, without giving a reason, and that an employee may quit at any time, without giving a reason. Neither party is required to show good cause, or any cause, before ending the relationship. It also means there is no requirement to give a certain amount of notice before a separation – while two weeks’ notice is traditional, it is not legally required.

There are several exceptions to the employment at will rule. First, it does not cover employees who have signed employment contracts of a specific duration. If a contract says that the job will continue for a set period of time, such as a year, an employer may not end the contract early without showing a “serious ground for complaint.” At the same time, an individual may not quit before the end of the contractual term without “just cause of complaint against his employer.” (As a practical matter, most employment contracts set forth certain specific grounds for early termination by either party). If an employee is fired before the end of the contractual term, and no good cause is shown, he may recover all wages for the full length of the contract. However, very few employees in Louisiana work under this type of employment contract. Employee handbooks usually do not qualify as employment contracts. Neither do vague oral promises about continued employment.

Unionized employees working under a collective bargaining agreement are generally not at will employees. Most (but not all) union collective bargaining agreements set forth the permissible grounds for suspension or termination, and often set forth detailed procedures for an employee to challenge a disciplinary action. If the employer fails to follow those procedures, or fires an employee based on grounds outside the collective bargaining agreement, the termination may be reversed by a court or arbitrator, who may also award backpay and fines. Many government employees are similarly protected by civil service rules regarding discipline and termination.

Perhaps most importantly, all Louisiana employees are protected by state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, or religion. They also prohibit employers from retaliating based on employee complaints, but only if those complaints are based on one of these protected characteristics. Louisiana also forbids terminating employees because of their political opinions or activities (surprisingly, this is legal in some states). Separate laws protect employees from retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim, taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or reporting an employer’s violation of law to the appropriate state authority. A few local or city ordinances may also provide additional protections – for example, the New Orleans City Code forbids employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The employment at will doctrine is not a defense to a termination that violates any of these laws or ordinances.

If you have any questions about the employment at will doctrine in Louisiana, call New Orleans employment lawyer Charles Stiegler today at (504) 267-0777, or email me at this link.