What Are My Legal Rights When Fired from a Job?
Insight on some legal FAQs about job termination and employee rightsBy Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on September 19, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Twila S. White
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- What is Employment At-Will?
- What Are the Grounds for Wrongful Termination?
- Does Your Employer Have to Tell You Why You Were Fired?
- When Should I Receive My Final Paycheck?
- Am I Entitled to Severance Pay?
- Can I Get Unemployment Compensation if I’ve Been Fired?
- Health Insurance Coverage
- Get Legal Help from an Experienced Employment Lawyer
Having your job terminated can be an extremely stressful and uncertain time.
If you are facing termination or have recently been let go, you’re probably wondering what your legal rights are following termination. This article will answer some of these common questions.
If you suspect your employer violated your rights—for example, through wrongful termination or not providing the pay you’re entitled to—consider speaking with an employment law attorney about your situation for legal advice.
What is Employment At-Will?
As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) explains, employment is assumed to be “at-will” in 49 out of the 50 states. Montana is the one exception—though the laws there are still similar to other states.
Under an at-will employment system, employers retain broad discretion regarding hiring and firing decisions. A company does not need a “good” or “fair” reason to remove an at-will employee.
Still, they cannot end an employment relationship for an illegal reason. If they do so, the terminated employee may have a wrongful termination claim (also called wrongful discharge).
What Are the Grounds for Wrongful Termination?
A wrongful termination claim involves more than your employer treating you unfairly. It has to be for an illegal reason. Here are a few:
State and federal laws prohibit workplace discrimination based on protected classes, including race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy status, religion, national origin, age, and disability.
Workplace discrimination can involve many types of adverse employment actions that an employer takes against an employee because of their membership in the protected class. One adverse action is termination—in many ways, the most adverse employment action of all.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the United States.
Retaliation is when an employer takes an adverse action against an employee as punishment for engaging in activities protected by public policy.
Protected activities include acting as a whistleblower by reporting unsafe working conditions to a government agency, filing a complaint with human resources about sexual harassment in the workplace, or taking protected medical leave under federal or state law.
“Say you request and take the 12 weeks of medical leave provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because your spouse has cancer treatments,” says Twila S. White, an employment law attorney in Hermosa Beach, California, who represents employees in wrongful termination and discrimination claims. “You come back after the 12 weeks, and your employer says ‘goodbye.’ They can’t do that and try to justify it by saying that you’re an at-will employee. No, the statute allows you to take 12 weeks of medical leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. You requested and took the time off and met all the requirements. The employer cannot retaliate against you or look for a reason to get rid of you because of that.”
Breach of an Employment Contract
Some employees have a written contract with their employer that specifies their terms of employment and other provisions. If an employer violates the provisions of an employment contract, the employee may have a valid breach of contract claim.
Additionally, some courts will infer an implied contract from employment policies as laid out in an employee handbook or from assurances by employers regarding continued employment.
Learn more about the grounds for a wrongful termination claim.
Does Your Employer Have to Tell You Why You Were Fired?
Employers are generally not legally required to tell employees why they are being terminated. One near exception to this is mass layoffs. The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) requires employers with 100 or more employees to give them advance notice of layoffs or plant closures.
If you have an employment contract, it may have a provision requiring the employer to give notice of termination or an explanation of why the termination is happening.
As a practical matter, employers will often provide some explanation of termination so as to avoid legal disputes down the road or to maintain their reputation as a desirable employer. However, this is not guaranteed by law.
When Should I Receive My Final Paycheck?
The time limit for an employer to issue a final paycheck to a terminated employee varies from state to state. It ranges from immediately to several business days or the next payday.
Factors that determine the amount of time include whether the employee was fired or quit and whether the employee provided advance notice of quitting.
Am I Entitled to Severance Pay?
Severance pay is not mandated by law.
You are only entitled to severance pay if you have a severance agreement with your employer. The severance agreement specifies the type and amount of compensation you’re entitled to following termination and is typically based on how long you were with the company.
If your employer has violated the terms of your severance agreement, or you need clarification on what you’re entitled to under a severance package, consider speaking with an employment law attorney about your situation.
Can I Get Unemployment Compensation if I’ve Been Fired?
Unemployment benefits eligibility is determined by state law and the reason for termination of employment.
You are generally entitled to unemployment benefits under the following circumstances:
- You quit your job for “good cause.” There are many valid reasons to quit your job voluntarily, such as pursuing a new career opportunity or finding a better work-life balance. However, to receive unemployment benefits after quitting, you need a “good cause.” What counts as good cause depends on state laws but generally includes quitting because of harassment, discrimination, unsafe working conditions, or threats of termination. Many states also provide unemployment compensation for employees who quit due to serious illness or injury.
- You were laid off. If you were laid off or your work hours were drastically decreased, you may be eligible for compensation under your state’s labor laws.
- Were fired for reasons not related to misconduct. For example, if you were fired due to the company needing to downsize for financial reasons, you would be eligible for unemployment compensation. However, if you were fired for serious misconduct in your role, you would not be entitled to compensation.
Health Insurance Coverage
Employees are generally entitled to continued healthcare coverage from their former employer following termination.
Under the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), employers with 20 or more employees must give terminated employees the option of staying on their company healthcare plan.
The duration of continued coverage ranges from 18 months to 36 months. It depends on the “qualifying event” or reason for job loss — for example, quitting, getting fired, reduced hours, or the employee’s death or injury (in which case, the employee’s spouse and dependents receive continued coverage).
Get Legal Help from an Experienced Employment Lawyer
If your job has been terminated and you’re concerned that your employee rights have been violated—whether from wrongful termination or because you haven’t received benefits you’re entitled to by law or contract—consider speaking with an attorney.
Look for a lawyer with previous experience helping employees with legal action. “A lot of times, there are lawyers who don’t regularly practice employment law and may not be as well-versed in those laws as they should be. So problems can arise,” says White. “I try to stay in my lane and handle what I know. I don’t want to be a Jane of all trades—I think that’s when errors can come up.”
In searching for a lawyer, “I think that a consumer should look at the attorney’s track record and research that lawyer to see if they’ve handled the type of cases that they are seeking help for,” she adds.
To begin searching for an experienced employment law attorney, visit the Super Lawyers directory and search by location. For more information about this legal area, see our overview of employment law and wrongful termination.
Additional Wrongful Termination articles
- What is Wrongful Termination Law?
- Understanding the Role of Retaliation in Wrongful Termination Cases
- How Do I Know if I Have a Wrongful Termination Claim?
- Should You Hire a Wrongful Termination Lawyer?
- What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination?
- When to Report Wrongful Termination
- What To Do if Your Employer Wrongfully Terminated You
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