I get a lot of calls and emails about employment related questions. Employment law is a highly specialized field of the law. Whether you are an employer or an employee, events at the office, factory, or jobsite often bump into important legal rules and principles. This article will attempt to deal the key employment matters I am questioned so often about.
Q. What steps does my employer have to take before he can let me go?
A. None. Texas is what is called a right to work state. In other words, unless the employer and employee have a written employment contract, with a term – like a one year employment agreement – the employer can let you go “at-will.” In other words you can be fired because your boss is in a bad mood, the company is downsizing, your hair is too long, or just about any other reason.
Q. If that is true, what keeps employers from discriminating on the basis of religion, sex, or ethnicity?
A. The “at-will” employment doctrine I mentioned is limited by a few exceptions. Under federal law, which trumps the state law, an employer can not discriminate on the basis or race, sex, or religion.
Q. I have a friend who was fired because her boss wanted a man to do her job. Is there anything she can do?
A. Yes. First, she can contact the E.E.O.C. or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the federal government. As a part of the federal law against employment discrimination, this federal agency is charged with investigating and prosecuting complaints such as the one held by your friend.
Q. Is there anything else she can do?
A. She can also contact a lawyer. She will need a litigation attorney or trial attorney who is familiar with employment disputes. It is possible an attorney could bring a lawsuit against your friend’s former employer for sex discrimination. However, generally the law requires that a private individual report the discrimination to the E.E.O.C. before they can bring their own action. The E.E.O.C. will then take the opportunity to investigate the matter and will prosecute the claim on its own. If they decide not to bring a claim on your behalf, you will then be free to have your own lawyer bring it.
Q. What other exceptions are there to the “at-will” employment policy of this state?
A. There are several, but another one that is often asked about relates to Worker’s Compensation benefits. Generally, if you are hurt on the job and your employer carries Worker’s Compensation Insurance, you are not allowed to sue your employer for your injury. Instead, you will be compensated by the employer’s insurance company in an amount chosen by the government to be a fair compensation for your injury. For example, if you lose your arm at work, you will be entitled to a certain cash payment which is based upon your age and other factors.
Q. What does this have to do with the “at-will” employment doctrine?
A. Well, sometimes, when an employee gets injured on the job and files a Worker’s Compensation Claim, his supervisor fires him. This is unlawful under state law and it entitles the wrongfully discharged employee to all of the damages suffered by him that were caused by the firing. For example, he can bring suit to recover lost wages, sometimes medical bills, and costs related to finding another job.
Q. I have another friend that works for a big computer company on the North side of town. Her employer wants to transfer her to her home state up North. They will pay the moving expenses for her and her family and will assist her husband in finding a new job. Are you saying that as soon as they move her, her employer could fire her and she and her family would be left far from home?
A. Yes. Of course, this would depend upon whether that state had an “at-will” employment doctrine like ours.
Q. She doesn’t mind moving. How could she protect herself?
A. She probably needs to consult with a lawyer in the state where she is moving. For a fee of a few hundred dollars, she can have an employment agreement written or reviewed that would provide her a minimum period of employment, a year for example, and provide that she be paid moving expenses and a stipend if employment of one year becomes impossible for the employer – or, the lawyer can write up any agreement the parties will approve.
Q. Why not hire a lawyer from here?
A. You could, but it is more likely the agreement will have to reflect the laws of the state where your friend is moving since that is where a court might be asked to enforce it.
Q. My friend’s employer has told her that if she is unwilling to move, they may want to let her go. They will agree to give her a month’s salary and pay her health insurance for six months. In exchange, my friend has to sign a Resignation Agreement. Should she sign it?
A. What is right for your friend’s life is up to her but as for the agreement, she should be very careful. Generally, a person who is fired or laid-off is entitled to Unemployment Benefits for a period of months after their termination. These benefits are not available to someone who has chosen to leave their job by quitting or resigning. If your friend signs the Resignation Agreement, she will likely be trading in several months of benefits for a month of salary.