“At-will” and “right to work” are terms you frequently hear in connection with employment in the state of Florida, and a lot of people tend to think of them interchangeably. However, they have both different meanings and very different implications for employees.
Is Florida an “At-Will” State?
Yes, Florida is an “at-will state. It’s important to also understand what “at-will” means to know if it impacts your employment. In an “at-will” state, both you and your employer are presumed to be working through your own volition, “at will,” with no long-term contractual obligation to each other. If you decide you’d rather work at another job, you can leave your employer at any time and they cannot take action against you.
Unfortunately, the converse is also true. You can be terminated without cause — because, for instance, your employer wants to hire someone with more experience — and typically you would have no legal recourse against them.
Every state in the U.S., with the exception of Montana, is an “at-will” state. In Florida, “at-will” is the default employment status. However, there are ways employees can negotiate a contract upon being hired to provide some protections. An employment contract can be modified to protect an employee from being terminated without cause, either on a case-by-case basis or through the results of collective bargaining. If you signed a contract upon being hired, pull it out and review the document. There may be clauses regarding specific conditions under which you can be fired. If you are fired for a reason not identified in that contract, you may have a legal case against your employer. Termination for discriminatory reasons is illegal. You are protected by anti-discrimination laws if you were fired because of your race, gender, disability, or pregnancy, for example. There are other instances of workplace discrimination that impact wrongful termination of employees.
Definition of an At-Will State
Here are key elements of the definition to remember:
- Your employer is free to fire you without cause to do so (with some exceptions).
- You are free to leave your employer and take another position.
- Your employer has no long-term contractual obligation to you.
- Likewise, you have no long-term contractual obligation to your employer.
- Your employer is free to transfer or demote you, as well as cut your hours, without cause.
- There are instances of wrongful termination in “at-will” states.
When Can I File a Lawsuit Against My Employer?
There are some cases in which you may be able to file suit against your employer for wrongful termination. They are as follows:
- The employer is breaking state or federal law — e.g., firing you violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
- The employer violates the public interest — e.g., you have been fired for refusing to perform an illegal act or being a whistleblower.
- Firing you goes against an implied contract — e.g., your employer’s established practice is not to terminate people without cause.
- The employer breaks a covenant of good faith — e.g., they fire you months before you can collect a pension.
- You take leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, or for jury duty, or for active military duty and the employer fires you.
- The employer fired you in retaliation for an action you took — e.g., you reported sexual harassment in the workplace to local law enforcement.
- You acted as a whistleblower and were fired — e.g. you contacted federal authorities with information about your employer’s intentional violation of federal law.
“Right to Work” Is a Different Story
Florida is also a “right to work” state. This term has nothing to do with an employer’s hiring or firing you. Instead, it simply means that unionization is not compulsory, and your employer is not able to force you to participate in a union or to pay union dues.
Conversely, they cannot refuse to hire you or fire you for joining a labor organization or collectively bargaining to improve your wages or benefits. You have the “right to work” whether or not you choose to belong to a union.
Proponents of “right to work” claim that the law is neither pro- nor anti-union; rather, it protects the individual’s freedom. Opponents point to studies that demonstrate lower wages and generally worse conditions for employees in the 28 U.S. states with right-to-work laws.
In a “right to work” state like Florida, your employer is not able to terminate you for engaging in union activity. That is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. But because Florida is also an “at-will” state, you can be terminated for any other reason, making it tricky sometimes to determine whether or not you were wrongfully terminated.
Do You Wonder Whether You Have Been Wrongfully Terminated?
If you believe that you might have been illegally fired from your job, or want to know whether you have grounds to sue under Florida’s right-to-work laws, you need an attorney who can review the details of your case. The employment attorneys at the Tampa law office of Feldman Williams have spent more than two decades fighting wrongful termination cases and will be happy to put their experience to work for you. It may also be helpful to read about some examples of wrongful termination in Florida.