Washington State, like most states, is an at-will state with respect to labor and employment issues. This means that an employer can terminate the contract of an employee “at-will” without recourse. An employer can terminate an employee for no good cause, provided that the termination was not based on discrimination.
To circumvent at-will employee status, there is a strategy that an employee can take, which is contracting as a “for cause” employee. This article will discuss this strategy.
Washington State law provides that the following scenarios are protected regarding at-will termination:
- National origin
- Age (40 and older is considered a protected class)
- Genetic information
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- HIV or AIDS status
- Hepatitis C infection
- State militia member
- Use of animal per disability
- Gender identity
- Victim of domestic violence
Note that these protections only apply to a Washington state employer that has eight or more employees. Also note that these protections apply to anti-retaliation, as well. This means that an employee who files a complaint, based on protected status, with the HR department of his or her company cannot face backlash for filing that statement.
Similarly, facing retaliation for complaining of an illegal action is against state law.
One way to avoid being an at-will employee is to contractually obligate the employer to only terminate for good cause. This would require a written contract saying as such. Such a contract would be upheld in court.
Even if the employer does not verbally commit to an at-will contract, an employment contract will often state that it is at-will. One should check the employee handbook from his or her employer.
Similarly, a term contract can remove an employee from an at-will status. For instance, signing a contract that an employee will work for three years and termination will only result for criminal acts or failing a drug test will bind the employer to the terms of that contract.
Sometimes, the law is gray, especially with respect to oral contracts. As mentioned, the general rule is that an employee is at-will. However, an employer who tells an employee “you can have this job until you retire” might be creating an oral contract wherein the employee is a for-cause employee. If the employer made such statements numerous times, then there is a more compelling claim for cause status.
Even in these situations, an employer will usually rely on the initial employment contract that the employee is at-will and will claim that there was no intent to modify the original terms of the contract. In situations in which the employee finds him or herself fired, he or she should speak with an experienced and knowledgeable labor law attorney.
Facing employment issues? Contact a law firm that has the experience and knowledge in Washington State labor law. Contact the HKM law firm.