One of the most overlooked phrases in employee contracts is “employed at will.” These three words mean that an employer doesn’t need just cause to let their workers go; an at-will employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, and workers are extremely limited in their ability to fight their termination.
Fortunately, there are some exceptions to at-will employment — but they only matter if employees are aware of them. At-will employment exceptions will vary from state to state, so here are the most important exceptions within the state of Florida.
Employers cannot make hiring decisions based on an employee’s gender, age, medical history, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, marital status or religious beliefs — and employers cannot terminate employees for any of these reasons, either. Doing so violates both federal and state anti-discrimination laws and subjects an employer to extremely steep penalties and fines.
It is important to note that in Florida, a worker’s political opinions are not protected under this exemption. If an employee talks about their political opinions in the workplace and their boss doesn’t approve, this is a valid and legal reason for dismissal. This is just one good reason to keep politics talk out of the office.
Unfortunately, as long as employers do not directly state that they are firing a worker for a discriminatory reason, it can be difficult to prove that discriminatory practices are the sole reason for termination. Often, employers can generate some other excuse for termination, which makes an unlawful discrimination lawsuit a grim uphill battle for an ex-employee. Before filing an unlawful discrimination claim, it is wise to talk to an employment lawyer regarding one’s circumstances to determine whether a lawsuit is a worthwhile endeavor.
The second big exception to at-will employment laws is cases of retaliation. There are certain employee activities that are protected under Florida law, and though an employer might not appreciate an employee engaging in these activities, they cannot retaliate against these activities by terminating their employee. These activities include:
Employee compensation refers to the various benefits employees gain by working for an organization. Compensation entails wages, medical benefits, paid time off and more. In some cases, employees might seek compensation for injuries or illnesses incurred in the workplace — which might be a point of contention in the time of COVID-19, when coming to work might mean contracting a life-threatening disease. It is illegal for an employer to terminate a worker seeking any compensation identified in their employment contract.
Way back in 1993, Florida lawmakers passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees workers within the state up to 12 weeks of leave for serious health conditions, a new child or a family member’s military service, and additional leave is available in certain unique circumstances, like caring for a family member injured in military service. It is worth noting that the FMLA only applies to workplaces with 50 or more employees and workers who have maintained the same employment for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous year. Firing an employee for rightfully taking advantage of this guaranteed leave is a violation of at-will employment and grounds for a lawsuit.
Refusing to Participate in Illegal Activity
One of the most interesting exceptions to at-will employment is this one, which protects employees who refuse to take part in activities that directly violate state or federal laws or regulations. Relatedly, employees are also covered against termination if they become qui tam relators and report fraudulent activity from their employers and if they testify in court against the employer in criminal cases. Workers who suspect their workplace of engaging in illegal activity would do well to talk to an attorney ASAP.
Other states have other exceptions to at-will employment. For instance, some states maintain public policy exceptions, which prevent an employer from terminating an employee for reasons that directly contradict certain public policies. Other states do not allow employers to terminate employees in cases of bad faith, which mean that employers did not treat employees with honesty and fairness.
Florida is one of the strictest employment-at-will states, meaning workers have the fewest opportunities for filing wrongful termination lawsuits. Still, it doesn’t hurt to talk to an employment lawyer about one’s circumstances, just in case there is precedent for compensation.