In Florida, most employees are considered at-will employees. This means that the employer or employee may terminate the employment relationship for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all. Although I wrote the employer or employee, for all practical purposes this arrangement favors the employer rather than the employee.
The employee, on the other hand, is not under an obligation to remain at the employer’s place of business. For example, if an employee has a job offer waiting at another company he or she does not have to give two week notice. An at-will employee could say, “today is my last day of work” and leave. As noted above, there are little benefits for the employee under the at-will doctrine.
Many employees in Florida make the mistake of saying, I have no rights because we are in a right to work state. While the employee is correct in noting that Florida is a right to work state, there is a difference between “employment at-will” and “right to work.” The “right to work” concept applies to the role that labor unions play in the employment relationship. Unlike some states in the North East or Mid-West, there are very few labor unions in Florida because it is a “right to work” state. By definition, “right to work” means an employee can work anywhere in the state of Florida without being forced to pay union dues.
Back to the at-will doctrine, power lies in the hands of the employer. All is not loss for the employee. There are a number of laws by statute and court decisions that protect the employee. The big one is discrimination law. Generally speaking the question is whether the employer illegally discriminated against the employee or potential employee based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability. Among other things, discrimination law touches on hiring, firing, transfers, promotions, demotions and layoffs.
An employee should also understand that he or she has rights under retaliation law. Retaliation law protects employees from being fired, demoted, harassed, or otherwise “retaliated” against because they filed a charge of discrimination or because they complained to their employer about a discriminatory practice.
Whistle-blower law is very similar to retaliation law. There are number of state and federal laws that provide whistle blower protection to employees. Whistle-blower law may be triggered if you report or refuse to participate in illegal activity. Generally, an employee will be required to make his or her complaint in writing to be protected under a whistle-blower statute.
Contract law is another option for consideration by the employee. If you are under a written contract, there is a very good chance that you will have greater rights than an at-will employee. Many contracts will have language indicating that an employee may be terminated for just cause. Just cause usually involves some form of misconduct by the employee that would support termination. If an employer cannot show just cause, an employee who is terminated early may have a claim to recover damages through the end of the contract period.
While employees recognize that Florida is a “right to work” [sic] “at-will state,” there may be avenues available to recover for wrongful termination. If an employee believes his or her termination is illegal, the best thing to do is schedule a meeting with a labor and employment attorney to discuss potential claims. I can be reached at (813) 413-2402.