The Basic Rule in Employment Law in New York State: The Employment at Will Doctrine

New York State is an “employment at will” state, and this has enormous implications for the enforcement of employment law in the state.

The most basic statement of the employment of law doctrine is:You can be fired from your job at any time for any reason, or no reason at all. You can be fired for a reason which is wrong, even one which is outright false.  One implication of this statement of the employment at law doctrine is that, in New York State, there is no such thing as a claim for wrongful discharge, because a discharge need not be based on anything.  It is perfectly alright for the boss to be in a bad mood one day, and decide the first person who walks in through the door.

There are other variations of the employment at will doctrine. For example, as an employee, you have no right to be treated fairly or with respect. If you don’t have a binding employment agreement, your employer has an absolute right to modify the terms and conditions of your employment at anytime for any reason, even no reason at all.  In other words, your employer can cut your pay anytime, or stop giving you benefits, including health insurance, vacation and sick leave.

Basically, in New York, you have to start from the point of view that you, as an employee, have no rights. Any rights that you may have are an exception to the general rule saying you have no rights, and, under the general rules of legal interpretation, exceptions to the rule are read narrowly.

There are two types of exceptions to the employment at will doctrine. The first type consists of exceptions created under federal, state and even local statutes. Examples of these exceptions are the wage and hour laws, which require employers to pay a minimum wage and overtime; the Family and Medical Leave Act, which restricts an employer’s ability to fire you; and the anti-discrimination laws, which require employers to refrain from using criteria like race and religion as the basis for granting or withholding any type of job related benefit. The New York Civil Service Law also creates an exception to the employment at law doctrine for employees employed by the State of New York, or local governments, including New York City.

The other type of exceptions to the employment at will doctrine consist of rights granted to employees under contract. The contract might be one entered into by an employer with one employee. It might also be one between an employer and an unions, that is, a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”). The degree to which an employment agreement or CBA creates an exception to the employment at will doctrine depends on the wording of the agreement. These days, employers are fond of having employees enter into employment agreements which specifically say that the employees are still employees at will doctrine. However, I don’t recall ever seeing a CBA which did not take covered employees outside of the employment at will doctrine.

States which are not employment at will states are “covenant” states. In a covenant state, the law assumes that, when they entered into an employment relationship, the employer and employee entered into a covenant (an agreement) of good faith and fair dealing.  The effect of this assumption of good faith is that, in a covenant state, like California, an employee cannot be terminated except for cause. In New York, employees will not have this type of protection, unless they are civil service employees, or union employees..

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