What Is the Right to Work Law?

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The Right-to-Work law protects the rights of employees to choose whether they want to join a union or pay union dues when they accept employment. This law is often confused with at-will employment, which has to do with the rights of employees and employers to terminate employment without cause.

In an effort to give people more of a choice in their employment options, many states have passed right-to-work legislation. For the most part, these laws protect the rights of employees to decide whether or not they want to join a union or pay union dues. As of early 2017, there were 28 states with right-to-work laws on the books.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Right-to-work laws, valid in 28 states and the territory of Guam, protect the rights of workers to choose whether they want to join or financially support a union in their place of business.

Which States Have the Right-to-Work Law?

As is the nature of legislation, right-to-work laws are changing all the time. As of February 2017, there were 28 states with such laws:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri (as of April 2018, Missouri's law not in effect, pending repeal vote slated for November 2018)
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota 
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming
  • and Guam

With the nature of laws being constantly in flux, it's important to check your state's right-to-work status before you count on it for employment information purposes.

Can You Sue a Company for Firing You?

People often confuse right-to-work laws with at-will employment laws. It's commonly believed that these are interchangeable concepts, but they're actually two very different things. While right-to-work laws are concerned only with whether an employee is forced to join a union, at-will generally describes a doctrine that gives employers and employees the right to terminate employment at any time, without reason or cause, barring certain restrictions.

While most employees have no recourse when they are fired in an at-will state, the same isn't true if the firing was because they belong to a protected class. Protected classes include, but aren't limited to:

  • race
  • sex
  • national origin
  • religion
  • military service
  • marital status
  • union affiliation
  • disability
  • whistleblowing
  • age – generally 40 and older

If you believe you've been fired because you're in one of these protected classes, you may have a valid lawsuit. Seek legal advice to find out if you can get your job back or get financial compensation.

What States Are Not At-Will Employment?

All states recognize the general doctrine of at-will employment. However, some states have put limitations on the concept. There are three basic exemptions, with a varying number of states that recognize each.

1. The public policy exemption is similar to the federal exemptions due to a protected class, as above, in that it lays out certain situations where employees can't be fired, such as:

  • refusing to perform any act that's illegal according to state law
  • reporting a violation of law
  • performing acts that are in the public interest
  • exercising one's statutory rights

All states apply this exemption except Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York and Rhode Island.

2. The implied contract exemption covers companies where employees sign at-will employment contracts that include the statement that employees will only be terminated for just cause, or other similar wording. All states recognize this except Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia.

3. The broadest exemption is the covenant of good faith. It requires that employers can terminate employees only for just cause, even if the employee's handbook doesn't include any wording on this topic. It's the least common exemption, being recognized in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Delaware, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming.

References

About the Author

Victoria Bailey has a degree in Public Law and Government. She has spoken before state Supreme Court justices and her photograph is on the back cover of Bill Clinton's autobiography. As a former member of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Bailey worked closely with lawmakers to help set public policy. Bailey's work appears on numerous websites, and she's currently writing the text for a governmental information app.