Last week, we talked about at-will employment. In general, in Washington, your employer can terminate your employment for any reason or no reason, if you are an at-will employee.
But, what if you think the reason you were terminated was wrong? What exactly is wrongful termination. In Washington, wrongful termination will generally fall under the following categories: (1) employment discrimination; (2) retaliation for filing a complaint; and (3) permissible leave or time off. The following is a short summary of what these categories mean:
1. Employment Discrimination. State and federal law prohibit adverse employment actions (not hiring someone, firing someone, or not promoting someone, for example) based on discrimination. In Washington, employers cannot discriminate based on the following categories: age (over 40), race, gender, sexual orientation, sexual or gender identity, pregnancy, veterans status, religion, ethnicity, and marital status. If your membership in one of these groups is the reason for your adverse employment action, you may have a legal claim for damages.
2. Retaliation for Complaints. A variety of Washington state and federal laws protect employees from being fired for reporting wage or hour claims or for reporting violations of codes or laws (like reporting an employer for not following required environmental policies when disposing of chemicals). It is not retaliation to be terminated for challenging an employer's policies that are lawful, but you do not like.
3. Permitted Leave or Time Off. Employers in Washington are required to provide unpaid leave for sick employees and family members under the FMLA. Some counties require employers to allow employees paid leave for illness or domestic violence situations (including Spokane County). Employees in the military are permitted leave or time off for required military duty. Employers are also required to provide unpaid leave for jury duty and pregnancy.
Wrongful termination is not: being fired for being late or violating employer policy or being fired for disagreeing with your boss.
These are only general categories, and we'll delve further into the above categories in future Employment Law 101 posts. If you suspect you've been wrongfully terminated, you should contact an attorney because you have varied timelines to pursue an action.
Up next: Wrongful Termination (Idaho)
In employment settings, you often hear the term "at will" or "at will employee," but what does that really mean? It means that your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at any time without any notice, so long as the real reason for firing you as the employee is not unlawful in some way. Almost every state has some iteration of at will employment laws. At will employment also means that the employee can leave when she or he wants as well.
Exceptions to at will employment include:
1. Employees with employment contracts (this is rare in Washington and Idaho)
2. Union employees bound by a collective bargaining or union agreement
3. Independent Contractors
If you are an at will employee, you are usually notified of that upon hiring, in an employee handbook, and in employer-led trainings. You should assume that if you are an employee in Washington or Idaho, and you don't fit one of the above-three exceptions, you are at will. Your termination is only unlawful (or, wrongful termination): (1) if you've been unlawfully discriminated against as a member of a protected class (veterans, women, persons of color, religion, sexual orientation); (2) if you've reported a violation of a local, state, or federal violation of a law or regulation; or (3) if your employer failed to follow its handbook procedures in terminating you (such as failure to follow progressive discipline policies that are in writing). We'll talk more about unlawful termination in our next Employment 101 post.
In the meantime, if you are an employee or employer with questions about being terminated or terminating, GIANTlegal is happy to help.
Hiring an attorney is a stressful process. It’s often unclear where to start to choose an attorney or how you’ll pay for an attorney. This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to do so, but a starting point.
Free legal services. If you make 200% or less of the federal poverty line, you are generally entitled to receive free civil legal services in areas like family law (divorce, child custody/paternity, parenting plans), landlord-tenant (housing issues), and related areas. You are always entitled to free criminal help if you qualify—that is a Constitutional right, which we won’t cover here.
200% or less of the federal poverty line in a family of four making $30,750 - $61,500. The income level varies based on number of household members. To obtain free civil legal aid in Washington, you should contact CLEAR, which can connect you to the appropriate legal service providers in your community for your issue. More information can be found here: https://nwjustice.org/clear-hotline.
Reduced cost legal services. If you make 200 – 400% of the federal poverty income level ($61,500 - $123,000 for a family of four), you may be entitled to reduced cost legal services of “low bono” help. One option for this is the Moderate Means Program, which is part of the Washington State Bar Association’s service. Our founding principal helped work on its predecessor program in Spokane called GAAP. In the Moderate Means Program, attorneys agree to lower their hourly rates to assist clients who don’t qualify for free legal aid in areas such as family law, landlord-tenant, and consumer (like debt collection matters). To be referred to a Moderate Means attorney, find more information here: http://wsba.org/Legal-Community/Volunteer-Opportunities/Public-Service-Opportunities/Moderate-Means-Program/Moderate-Means-Legal-Help. Our GIANTlegal attorneys handle Moderate Means clients, but you must be referred by the program.
Contingent legal services. In many areas of the law, attorneys will agree to take your case on a contingent basis, meaning that the attorney does not get paid unless you get paid. This primarily occurs in personal injury (car accidents, medical malpractice, slip and falls), employment (wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination in hiring and firing), consumer collection cases (debt collection), consumer construction cases (for licensed contractors only), and workers compensation (on the job injuries). If your legal matter involves one of these areas of the law, contact an attorney for a free consultation to determine if you need to retain a lawyer. The lawyer will take a percentage of any amounts you receive at the end of your matter.
Flat rate services. For many areas of the law, like basic wills and estate planning, business formations, employee handbooks and employment agreements, attorneys will charge the client a flat rate. If you are a small business or want to open a small business – or even if you aren’t so small – ask your attorney about flat rate services for things like this. At GIANTlegal, we charge flat rates for business setups, employee handbooks, review and drafting of employment contracts, and debtor-side Ch. 7 bankruptcies.
As always, ask around and contact us with questions.
All blog posts are written by members of the GIANTlegal team, unless otherwise indicated. Information contained in our blog does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.