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What is at-will employment?

There are many terms related to employment law that might be confusing to a worker in Michigan. It is in these circumstances that a worker might find him or herself subjected to treatment that is a violation or just seems to be one. One such term is "at-will employment." In almost every state in the United States, workers are considered at-will. What this means is that generally have the right to fire workers without giving a specific reason.

This isn't all bad for employees. Employees can leave a job ay any time and there will not be legal recourse on the part of the former employer. Also, employers cannot fire an employee for an illegal reason, such as when the termination is due to unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality or some other protected factor.

However, at-will employment means that the employer has the right to change the terms of employment without notice and not face any consequences for it. Wages can be changed, benefits terminated, and paid time off rescinded or reduced. Because of this, employees are notoriously vulnerable to the whims of an employer.

With a contract, this rule can be mitigated. Employees who are given a contract will have to live by its terms and vice versa. Unions and higher level employees are often granted a contract so they are not in danger of being victimized in an at-will termination. That does not mean that a person with a contract through a one-on-one negotiation or via a union agreement cannot be terminated. The terms of the termination and the need for cause are present with a contract in comparison to an at-will employee.

Although it might seem to be a narrow avenue to protest when in an at-will situation and confronted with the reality of termination at will, there is still a possibility to file a case if the dismissal was illegal. That can occur if it was due to some form of discrimination, civil rights violation, because the employee is being retaliated against, and for other reasons. At-will employees who believe they have been victimized by a violation of employment law should consider speaking to a legal professional to see if it is possible to file a case.

Source: NCSL.org, "The At-Will Presumption and Exceptions to the Rule," accessed on Nov. 10, 2015

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