The Consultant's Desk

The Consultant's Desk
Poring over the details on your behalf

Monday, January 14, 2013

At Will Employment: A Case Study

In the previous post we defined what at-will employment is and examined some of the exceptions to at-will employment. At this point you might be saying, "Charity, discussing at-will employment is like beating a dead horse." I disagree. The term "at-will employment" is one that has been used so often that everyone assumes that we understand its implications, and we do not.

What happened to pique this interest in the "at-will" verbiage and disclaimers?  My partner, who I will call "Rufus" for the sake of his privacy, was injured at work. His employer sent him to an occupational health doctor who diagnosed the injury as knee strain. The doctor gave Rufus some pain relieving balm, told him to rest the knee, and sent him back to work. Two days later, Rufus’s knee had worsened and his employer sent him back to the same doctor. The doctor diagnosed the injury as "arthritis," advised Rufus to take ibuprofen for the swelling, and sent him back to work. 

Three days later, Rufus's condition was still worsening and his employer refused to send him back to the doctor because of the doctor's previous diagnosis. Rufus advised his supervisor that he was unable to perform his duties safely and effectively due to the knee injury, stated that he would seek medical attention for his knee, and left work early. 

Rufus didn't have insurance and decided to go to an urgent care facility the next day because it was cheaper than going to the emergency room. The next day Rufus called his supervisor and the site's HR manager 3 hours before his shift started to inform them that he was going to urgent care to have a doctor examine his knee and would be absent for the day. The urgent care doctor examined Rufus's knee and advised him that the knee was sprained.  The doctor advised Rufus that he could not stand for long periods of time and placed Rufus on work restriction for three weeks.

Immediately after the doctor's visit Rufus called the site’s HR manager to advise him of the work restriction. The HR manager advised Rufus that his employment was terminated due to "attendance" and refused to consider the circumstances surrounding Rufus's absences. Rufus had not been counseled or disciplined for absenteeism, he passed the post-accident drug screen administered by his employer, and Rufus had been clear that his absences were caused by his work-related injury. We then consulted with a lawyer who advised us that we had no case against the employer.

Why did the lawyer say that we had no case? After all, what the employer did should be illegal since it violated state laws regarding worker's compensation thus Rufus's case should be covered by the public policy exception. Unfortunately, Rufus needed to prove the employer's intent and was unable to do so. Rufus was fired due to excessive absenteeism and the reason for Rufus's absences was not documented. Simply put, Rufus could not prove that the employer fired him because of his work-related injury.

You might be asking, "What about the disciplinary procedures in the employee handbook? Wouldn't that pertain to Rufus's situation?" No, because Rufus lives in a state that does not recognize implied contracts. Lastly, it may seem that Rufus's situation was not handled in "good faith." While that assessment may be true, it does not apply to Rufus because he lives in a state that does not recognize the covenant of good faith exception.

What I hope you will understand is the fact that as an employee (or HR student), you need to be aware that the ability to leave one's job at any time comes at a price. It is up to you as an employee to understand what that price is and what your rights are before you agree to those terms. It is up to HR associates to explain the benefits and consequences of at-will employment to applicants and employees in plain language.

If you are interested in learning what your rights are, you can Google "[state name] labor department." Also, the U.S. Department of Labor offers a webpage, DOL Services by Location, which provides links to your state's labor department.

Thank you for reading, and best wishes.

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