What Does It Mean to Be An “At-Will” Employment State?
North Carolina is as an “at-will” employment state. The term “at-will employment” simply means that unless there is a specific North Carolina law to protect an employee or a contract provision providing otherwise, an employer in North Carolina can fire an employee for any reason or for no reason at all.
An employer wrongfully discharges an at-will employee if the termination violates your employment contract, is done for an unlawful reason, or is done for a purpose that contravenes public policy—the principle of law that holds no citizen can do that which has a tendency to be injurious to the public or against the public good.
Types of Discrimination
The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act, as well as federal law, provides that it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee for the following discriminatory reasons:
- National Origin
- Age (40 and older)
- Handicap (disability)
In addition to the above protections, federal and North Carolina law require that employers with at least 15 or more employees are subject to anti-discrimination laws. However, if you work for the federal government, you’re protected by anti-discriminatory laws no matter how few people your employer hires.
Employers can also be penalized for retaliation against and employee. Retaliation occurs when you are terminated from your job because you reported illegal activities, acted as a whistleblower, or filed a lawsuit against your employer.
The North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) protects employees who engage in “protected activities” under the law. REDA protects a number of areas and individuals, including:
- Wage and Hour Issues
- Workplace Safety Rights
- Mine Safety and Health
- Sickle Cell Carriers
- Hemoglobin C Carriers
- Genetic Testing
- National Guard Service
- Juvenile Justice System
- Domestic Violence
- Pesticide Exposure
- Employees reporting activities of their employer under the Paraphernalia Control Act
Under federal law, you have the right to take off time from work for family and medical leave, military leave, and jury duty. The Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. Under the FMLA, an employer must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:
- The birth of a son or daughter or placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care;
- To care for a spouse, son, daughter, or parent who has a serious health condition;
- For a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job; or
- For any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that a spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a military member on covered active duty or call to covered active duty status.
Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius. Additionally, an eligible employee may also take up to 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness when the employee is the son, daughter, spouse, parent, or next of kin of the service member.
When an employee returns from FMLA leave, the employer must restore the employee to his or her original job or an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. The use of FMLA leave cannot be counted against an employee.
It is unlawful for an employer to restrain, interfere, or deny an employee the right to exercise any qualified unpaid leave under the FMLA. It is also unlawful for an employer to discriminate against or discharge an employee for exercising their rights under the FMLA.
In addition to the FMLA, North Carolina law provides the additional leave privileges for the following reasons:
- Four hours of unpaid leave each year;
- Attend or otherwise be involved at their child’s school;
- Serve on a jury;
- Seek judicial protection from domestic violence;
- Obtain a protective order or other relief;
- Active or emergency military duty; and
- Member of the National Guard.
If your employer terminates your employment for any of the above reasons, then he or she has engaged in unlawful discharge and you have a right to a number of potential damages.
We Are Here to Help
At Miller Law Group, PLLC, in Raleigh, North Carolina, we are experienced professionals with a track record of getting our clients the best results possible. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, contact an attorney who can help you immediately at 919-348-4361 or Contact Us online.