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Understanding Employment at Will and Right to Work

| September 14, 2020

The phrases “employment at will” and “right to work” seem clear enough but can be confusing for both employers and employees. Understanding what these phrases mean and how they apply to your job or your employees is important for understanding the rights and obligations of employers and employees. Ultimately, you may want to consult with a Maryland employment attorney to understand what these laws mean for you and how they apply to your unique situation.  

Employment at Will Explained

In its most basic sense, employment at will means that an employer can terminate an employee for almost any reason or even no reason at all. For example, an employer could fire an employee in an “employment at will” state for any of the following reasons: 

  • Being late
  • Making mistakes
  • Having a negative attitude
  • Complaints from customers
  • Annoying coworkers 
  • Making inappropriate comments or using profanity

Ultimately, an employer could fire an employee in an at-will state simply because they don’t like them. While this seems unfair to employees, legislators believe that it makes it easier for employers to hire and replace employees because it reduces their fear of future claims for wrongful termination

Every state has adopted some version of at-will employment, including Maryland. 

However, each state has its own exceptions to the rule, so it’s important to consult with a Maryland employment lawyer to discuss how the law will apply to your situation. 

Exceptions to Employment at Will in Maryland 

The first exception that you should be aware of is that employment at will only applies if there is no written contract or other agreement that sets forth the grounds for termination. Because employment agreements and even oral promises can be vague or otherwise unclear, an employer may have inadvertently limited their ability to terminate an employee at will. A Maryland employment attorney can review your employment agreement to clarify whether you were wrongfully terminated or, if you are an employer, whether you have limited your ability to terminate employees at will. 

Another important exception in Maryland is referred to as the “public policy” exception. This means that an employer cannot terminate an employee for engaging in actions that are protected by law or if it would be contrary to public policy. For example, it would be against the law to terminate a whistleblower or fire someone for refusing to engage in illegal conduct. 

The other exceptions to employment at will are perhaps unsurprising. In the state of Maryland, you cannot terminate an employee for the following reasons: 

  • Their age, race, gender, national origin, religion, marital status, or disability
  • They have filed a workers’ compensation claim
  • They have demanded payment of overtime wages or other wages they may be owed

Many employers feel that these exceptions threaten to swallow the rule. Whether an employer or an employee, an experienced Maryland employment lawyer can help you navigate these issues. 

Right to Work in Maryland

Several states in America have adopted “right to work” laws that prohibit compulsory union membership. In a right to work state, employers and unions are prohibited from requiring membership in a union as a condition of employment. 

Maryland currently does not have an express “right to work” law. However, Maryland law does provide the following protections to employees: 

  • Employees cannot be forced to join a union
  • Employees cannot be prohibited from joining a union
  • Employees cannot be required to leave a union or terminate their membership

It’s important to note that these protections apply to any express, implied, written or verbal statements made by the employer. 

As a result, a Maryland employer cannot require an employee to join a union as a requirement of their job. Nor can they require the employee to pay union dues. Similarly, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from joining a union or require that they leave the union. These protections apply to all employees, whether new hires or existing employees.  

Questions? Contact a Maryland Employment Lawyer Today

While these issues may seem straightforward, the truth of the matter is that they are often far more complex than they appear. Whether you are a business owner or an employee, Maryland employment lawyer J.W. Stafford can help you understand how these laws apply to you. To schedule an appointment, contact the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford at 410-514-6099 to discuss your case and learn more about how we can help.