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.
In a conversation with the boss who fired the maid, the boss told the reporter that he had not fired the maid but that, instead, she had walked off the job. The maid disputes this version of events. Why would the boss lie about firing the maid? Of course, we can’t know for sure. He may not have wanted to look bad in the press. He may also have wanted to deprive the maid of unemployment insurance benefits.
When an employee gets fired, she is typically entitled to unemployment insurance benefits unless the employer fired her for committing some form of misconduct. Employers have to pay a share of these unemployment insurance benefits to employees who qualify for them. However, if an employee walks off the job for no good reason, she is not entitled to unemployment insurance benefits. Thus, the maid’s boss may have lied about the maid walking off the job because he did not want to have to pay his portion of her unemployment insurance benefits.
One way the maid in this story could have had legal protection was if she had been a member of a union. Employers usually cannot fire union employees without “just cause” because the collective bargaining agreement between the employer and the union will not allow it. The just cause requirement means that an employer cannot fire an employee without having a good reason. So, if you’re concerned about becoming a victim to the at-will employment rule, like the maid in this story, you should consider whether it might be a good idea to band together with your co-workers and form a union.