A New York City ordinance recently went into effect to protect fast food workers by challenging at-will employment. The ordinance gives employees of New York City’s fast food restaurants rights and protections that are typically only granted to union employees.
Employers will be prohibited from firing employees or cutting their hours without Just Cause. In cases of economic reasons, employers will be required to lay off employees in order of seniority. Just Cause employment laws are not common outside of contracts and unions, so why should employers outside of NYC care about such a local ordinance?
At-will employment is the standard in several states, like Texas, for example. Basically, it means that an employer can fire an employee at any time or an employee can quit at any time, unless they have a contract between them for a specified term.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Federal law makes it illegal to fire someone because of race, disability, age (if the person is over 40 years old), and religion, among other things. In Texas, there are a few other state exceptions. Employers can’t fire someone for serving on a jury or in retaliation for a workers’ compensation claim, for example.
Just Cause systems still let employers fire workers, but they must provide a substantial reason. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) believes that adopting Just Cause protections creates a more racially just workplace. At-will systems harm minorities, specifically Black and Latinx workers.
Just Cause employment reforms are becoming more popular.
Technically speaking, an employer has the upper hand in employment practices. Under at-will employment laws, employers can terminate an employee without warning or explanation. A report from the NELP estimates that 50% of American workers have been impacted by unfair or arbitrary firings in their lifetime. Workers are often fearful to bring up problems in their workplace in at-will environments. The at-will system keeps workers from speaking out about sexual harassment or racial discrimination.
NYC is not the only place adapting Just Cause employment reforms. Just this year, Illinois lawmakers introduced the Secure Jobs Act. Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to pass Just Cause legislation. It specifically applied to parking lot attendants.
NELP research found that Just Cause policies are supported by both Republicans and Democrats. A February 2021 poll found that 71% of voters supported Just Cause laws. Just Cause reforms were building before the pandemic. The pandemic simply ramped up momentum to protect workers, but the practices of at-will systems that harm workers will continue after the pandemic.