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Common Myths of Employment Law

October 19, 1998
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Related Topics: Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Wrongful Discharge, Featured Article
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Employment Law is a very complicated field of law. It is also very misunderstood. Below are a variety of common incorrect beliefs about employee rights.

Employees Cannot Be Fired Without Cause
This is the most common myth regarding employee rights. In most states, employment is "at will". This means that the employer can fire the employee for no reason or any reason.

There are two exceptions to this general rule:

  1. Discrimination.
    Employers cannot discriminate against employees are the basis of age, race, sex, national origin, disability, and a variety of other reasons. Employers cannot discriminate against an employee because he or she has ["whistleblown"] which is reporting illegal activity of the employer. They also cannot discriminate against an employee for engaging in other protected activities, such as filing workers’ compensation claims. If an employer fires an employee because of one of these factors, that is against the law, and the employee can sue.
  2. Contract.
    If any employee has a contract with the employer, the employee probably cannot be fired without just cause. Contracts can be written or implied. A common way for an employee to have a written contract is to be in a union.

Other than these exceptions and a few rare others, employers can fire employees for any reason, even because they just don't like the employee.

Employees Cannot Be Harassed.
"Harassment", standing alone, is not illegal. The harassment must be based on an illegal factor, like those listed above under "discrimination." In other words, the employer cannot harass the employee because of his race. But he can harass him because he just doesn't like him.

Employees Can Always Sue for Emotional Distress if They Are Fired Wrongfully.
If an employee has a right not to be fired except for just cause because of a contract, and is fired, he can sue only for his lost wages and benefits. He cannot sue for emotional distress.

If the employee is sued for an illegal reason, such as racial discrimination, he can sue for emotional distress, in addition to lost wages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

Employers Cannot Reduce Pay.
Unless the employee has a contract to the contrary, there is nothing to stop an employer from reducing pay. This reduction cannot be based on an illegal reason, such as the employee's race. It must be because of a business decision (which can include greed).

However, if an employee has done work, expecting to receive a certain rate of pay, the employer must pay for those hours at that rate. Reductions in pay can only be prospective; they cannot be retroactive.

This is a general overview of federal law. Contact your attorney for more information about the law in your state.

Source: David H. Greenberg, Los Angeles, September 25, 1998.

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