At Will Employment Laws by State

January 13, 2020

In the United States, at-will employment is a commonly accepted labor practice – every state and the District of Columbia enforce at-will employment policies in some form. However, some states have exceptions to these laws, in order to give employees more rights against potentially advantageous employers.

Which states have exceptions to at-will employment? With assistance from data visualization firm 1Point21 Interactive, we researched this topic, creating interactive maps detailing these exceptions.

What is At-Will Employment?

At its simplest form, at-will employment states that any employee can be dismissed or fired without prior justification or warning – as long as the reason is not illegal.

This means that any employee hired can be easily fired without prior notice or even a good reason, as long as they aren’t wrongfully terminated, e.g. against laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

What Are the Difference Types of Exceptions

At-will employment gives employees few protections from sudden termination from their employers. In order to combat this, varying exceptions have been passed in each state to empower employees who feel they may have been wrongfully terminated.

There are three types of exceptions to at-will employment laws: public policy, implied contract, and covenant of good faith.

Public Policy Exceptions by State

The public policy exception states that an employer may not dismiss an employee if firing them violates any established public policy. In this case, public policy refers to any generally accepted common practices or state or federal statutes. This includes terminating an employee for:

  • Reporting someone who may have violated a law
  • Refusing to break the law on behalf of the employer
  • Acting int eh public’s interest, such as reporting to jury duty
  • Exercising their rights under the law.

42 states and the District of Columbia recognize public policy as an exception – only 8 do not have the exception.

However, it’s important to note that some states do not make an exception for public policy because other previously established statutes already cover parts of the exception. For example, although Maine has no public policy exception to at-will employment, some previously established statutes give employees protections similar to the public policy provisions seen in other states.

 

Implied Contract Exceptions by State

Under an implied contract exception, an employer is not permitted to dismiss an employee if an implied contract exists between both to infer that they are not hired on an at-will basis. Under this exception, there is no express written contact that actually states this, but rather an understanding of the company’s policies that indicates this – usually in the form of an employee handbook or something similar.

37 states and the District of Columbia enforce an implied contract exception. However, it is widely established that proving the terms of an implied contract are often incredibly difficult, with the burden of proof falling on the fired employee.

Covenant of Good Faith Exceptions by State

Also known as an “implied-in-law” contract, the covenant of good faith and fair dealing exception states that employers may only terminate employees based on just cause and good faith. This exception protects employees who feel they may have been terminated in bad faith; examples of this include:

  • Firing an employee shortly before they are retired, in order to avoid paying retirement benefits
  • Dismissing an employee to prevent paying them a bonus that they are owed.

11 states currently have exceptions on the basis of covenant of good faith.  However, successfully filing a wrongful termination suit based on this exception is often incredibly difficult, as it can be truly complicated to determine a company’s true motivations for firing an employee.

All At-Will Employment Exemptions By State

Summing it all up, this table lists the status of each state regarding At-Will Employment exemptions for public policy, implied contracts and covenant of good faith.

 

State Public Policy Implied Contracts Covenant of Good Faith
Alabama No Yes Yes
Alaska Yes Yes Yes
Arizona Yes Yes Yes
Arkansas Yes Yes No
California Yes Yes Yes
Colorado Yes Yes No
Connecticut Yes Yes No
Delaware Yes No Yes
District of Columbia Yes Yes No
Florida No No No
Georgia No No No
Hawaii Yes Yes No
Idaho Yes Yes Yes
Illinois Yes Yes No
Indiana Yes No No
Iowa Yes Yes No
Kansas Yes Yes No
Kentucky Yes Yes No
Louisiana No No No
Maine No Yes No
Maryland Yes Yes No
Massachusetts Yes No Yes
Michigan Yes Yes No
Minnesota Yes Yes No
Mississippi Yes Yes No
Missouri Yes No No
Montana Yes No Yes
Nebraska No Yes Yes
Nevada Yes Yes No
New Hampshire Yes Yes No
New Jersey Yes Yes No
New Mexico Yes Yes No
New York No Yes No
North Carolina Yes No No
North Dakota Yes Yes No
Ohio Yes Yes No
Oklahoma Yes Yes No
Oregon Yes Yes No
Pennsylvania Yes No No
Rhode Island No No No
South Carolina Yes Yes No
South Dakota Yes Yes No
Tennessee Yes Yes No
Texas Yes No No
Utah Yes Yes Yes
Vermont Yes Yes No
Virginia Yes No No
Washington Yes Yes No
West Virginia Yes Yes No
Wisconsin Yes Yes No
Wyoming Yes Yes Yes

Montana’s At-Will Employment Policy

Montana is the only state in the United States who does not operate on a traditional at-will employment policy. True at-will employment is only enforced for employees who are in an introductory probationary period; non-probationary employees have further protections from the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act. This states that a dismissal is wrongful if:

  • It was in retaliation for the employee refusing to violate public policy or for reporting violations in public policy.
  • The discharge was in bad faith and the employee has passed the probationary period.
  • The employer explicitly violated any written provisions in the employee’s contract or policy.

Essentially, an employer must have a good, justifiable reason to dismiss an employee.

Closing Thoughts

Although many states share similar exceptions to at-will employment policies, these statutes may be interpreted or enforced differently based on the state’s general policies and past precedents. As such, it is highly recommended to consult an attorney specializing in employment law about any questions regarding any disputes that may have occurred due to at-will employment laws.

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