Articles Posted in At-will employment

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Election day is quickly approaching and there are already some very contentious political campaigns going on right now.  Many people, including co-workers, share a deep interest in the positions and policies of various political candidates.  Workers should be careful, however, about what they discuss at work.

Many people mistakenly think that their employer cannot do anything to them for talking about politics because they have a First Amendment right to express their opinions.  While it is true that everyone has a First Amendment right to talk politics, the First Amendment only prevents the government from punishing you for talking politics.  So, if you work for a private employer, instead of a government, your employer can punish you for speaking your mind about, for example, why people should vote for a certain candidate.  Even employees who work for a government should be cautious about what they discuss at work because, even though the First Amendment provides some protections to those employees, those First Amendment protections are not unlimited.  There are also some laws, such as the federal Hatch Act, that prohibits political activity at work.

As with most legal rules, however, there is no bright line rule on what types of political speech an employer may punish you for saying.  For example, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) entitles non-supervisory employees to discuss issues such as their pay.  Thus, if you speak to your co-workers about how you like the policy proposal of raising the minimum wage because you think you and your co-workers deserve a pay raise, your employer may not be able to legally punish you for such conversations.

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Yesterday the Washington Post ran a story about a hotel maid who a reporter had interviewed for an article on the minimum wage. The reporter spoke to the maid at the suggestion of the maid’s boss. The maid had told the reporter that she looked forward to receiving a $0.25/hour pay raise because her state, Arkansas, was going to raise the minimum wage. The maid contacted the reporter after he published the story and told him that her boss had fired her because of what she said to the reporter. Her boss did not think that a minimum wage increase was a good idea.

As unfair as this sounds, the maid’s termination was probably legal because of the at-will employment rule. Under the at-will employment rule, it is presumed that employers can fire employees for any reason whatsoever, no matter how unfair. There are exceptions to the at-will employment rule, such as laws that prohibit certain types of discrimination, but many cases of unfair employment practices do not fall under any of these exceptions to the at-will employment rule.

In the case of the hotel maid, she claims that her boss fired her because she spoke to a reporter and expressed an opinion contrary to the opinion of her boss. If the maid had worked for a government agency, the First Amendment may have protected her from this type of retaliation. But the maid did not work for a government employer; she worked for a private company. And the First Amendment protects people from government action, not the actions of private companies.

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According to various news sources, the Morning Sentinel, a newspaper in Waterville, Maine, fired reporter Larry Grard on November 10, 2009. Mr. Grard claims that the Morning Sentinel fired him because he sent an email to the Human Rights Campaign. He sent the email just after Maine voters repealed Maine’s same sex marriage law. In his email, he accused the Human Rights Campaign of being “hateful” and “venom-spewing.” Mr. Grard believes that the Morning Sentinel discriminated against him because of his conservative political beliefs. Mr. Grard’s union has filed a grievance challenging his termination.

Mainers should know that, if Mr. Grard was not in a union, he would have no claim for wrongful termination. In Maine, it is not illegal for a private employer to discriminate against someone because of their political beliefs. If you think that is wrong, you should contact your representatives in the Maine legislature.