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When fielding phone calls from clients or prospective clients regarding employment contracts, I have noticed that there exists is a good deal of confusion as to the difference between “Right to Work” and “Employment at Will.” Simply put “Right to Work” laws deal with the hiring of employees and “Employment at Will” deals with the firing of employees.

In a “Right to Work” state an individual has a right to work for a company without being required to join a union or being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Alabama is a right to work state. In fact, every southeastern state is a “Right to Work” state, and in all, about 24 states are “Right to Work” states.

Unions can, and do, still operate in “right to work” states. Interestingly enough, if a person lives in a “Right to Work” state and his or her employer is unionized, the employee would generally still be represented by the union and bound by the union contract but would not be required to join the union or pay union dues. Even with the “free ride” issue in “Right to Work” states, unions still vigorously pursue collective bargaining in these areas. In recent years, the United Auto Workers (UAW) have been stepping up pressure on foreign auto manufactures, like Mercedes and Hyundai to unionize, which could have a great deal of local impact. Supporters say that employees in unions enjoy a higher standard of living while detractors say it would increase costs, decrease quality and kill jobs.

“Employment at Will,” which is the law of the land in most states, including Alabama, means that, absent a written employment agreement to the contrary, either an employer or an employee can end a working relationship at any time, for any reason and without any notice. Your continued employment is subject to the will or whims of your employer. That means that an employer can fire you because he does not like the tie you have on or the way you cut your hair.

Of course, there are exceptions. Termination based upon discrimination due to an employee’s race, gender, age, religion, pregnancy or disability is illegal in any state, at- will or otherwise. Another exception may be created by the employer if the company’s employee manual provides for procedures to be followed in the event of a termination. In addition to being terminated at any time for any reason, an employer may alternatively alter the terms of an employees’ job description without notice.

The presumption of at-will employment is firmly anchored as a feature of the U.S. employment landscape. Even so, due to common law and statutory exemptions, employers and employees alike should know and understand when a termination may be excluded from the basic at-will relationship.