At-Will Employment vs. Right to Work: What’s the Difference?

At-will employment and right-to-work laws have generated significant controversies in recent years. In fact, debates over these policies have become so pervasive that some states have even had votes to change their constitution.

These debates are far from inconsequential. The decisions happening around you could affect your family’s financial future for generations. However, the differences between the legal doctrines are not always transparent or easy to understand.

You have some vital tools at your disposal once you know the finer details of the legislation. Once you read this article, you can do more than understand your rights after losing a job. You will also have the opportunity to connect with a local attorney passionate about protecting your interests.

What Is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment is a legal presumption that allows employers to let employees go for any reason. As long as their reasoning is not discriminatory, they can do as they please.

Generally, most countries around the world accept some form of at-will employment. This fact may not provide much comfort, but it does not mean all is lost. Depending on where you live, you may have state legislation that can help you protect your financial independence.

Which States Have At-Will Employment? 

Every state in the union has to recognize at-will employment. However, many of them have adopted laws that modify its impact. As a result, these legislative maneuvers may give you more rights than you would think possible. 

The most notable exception comes from Montana. According to its Department of Labor & Industry, they do not accept the status of being an at-will state. They only allow this doctrine to apply for the first six months of employment.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

At-will employment is a formidable legal doctrine, but it is not invincible. There are instances where your employer can cross a line that makes them liable for their actions. For instance, consider the following examples from state and federal laws:

  • Retaliation
  • Whistleblowing
  • Discrimination
  • Off-Duty Activities

The EEOC reports that retaliation is the most frequent complaint from federal employees. It refers to someone from your organization punishing you for asserting your rights or reporting illegal activity. Notable examples include refusing sexual advances or filing a discrimination charge with authorities.

The National Whistleblower Center defines a whistleblower as someone who reports an employer for wrongdoing. They could notify state agencies about public health dangers, fraud, or corruption, among other activities. These actions may motivate someone who stands to lose money or status to take illegal actions.

At first glance, discrimination seems like a straightforward subject in employment law. However, it comes in so many forms that employers may not know when someone goes too far.

Regardless of the complexities, the EEOC offers a straightforward definition. Treating someone less favorably or differently for any reason may qualify under the law.

Moreover, there has been a growing movement to avoid repercussions for what you do during off hours. These legislative efforts have many links to the expanding number of states that have legalized marijuana. For example, the State of Illinois passed HB4116 in 2022. This legislation prevents an at-will employer from using cannabis as an excuse to get rid of an employee.

Covenant of Good Faith

Most states recognize that employers should act in good faith regarding their employment practices. In practice, this understanding means courts can punish malicious acts like firing a senior before retirement. Another example would involve terminating someone before they receive a substantial bonus.

Public Policy Exemption

Your attorney could argue that your employer’s actions violated public interest. A few examples from legal precedent include firing an employee for one or more of the following:

  • Refusing an illegal request 
  • Reporting fraud or fair labor violations
  • Serving on a jury or joining the National Guard
  • Filing for workers’ compensation after an injury or illness

Implied Contract Exemption

Implied contract violations are among the hardest exemptions to prove in court. The  can depend on internal inconsistencies in policies or verbal promises from supervisors. An example of the former would involve skipping steps in the company’s performance evaluation process. Alternatively, organizations cannot make statements like “you have a job for life” to at-will employees only to fire them later.

What Is a Right-to-Work State?

At first glance, it seems that right-to-work states have elected to embrace a progressive policy. You may imagine that it means you have an entitlement to a job if you want one. However, this legislative doctrine does not have anything to do with public policy or employment programs.

The NCSL says that right-to-work laws prohibit mandatory membership in a union. Actually in some states, people who work in education, construction, and other industries have to join the collective bargaining organization. 

But in others, you have a choice and may enjoy the same benefits members have without paying dues. For instance, in a state like Kentucky, a teacher’s union would have to defend educators regardless of their membership status.  

How Many States Have a Right to Work Law?  

Fox Business reports there are 28 states with right-to-work legislation in the United States. You can find a complete list of them below the conclusion of this article.

Do You Have a Case Against Your Employer? 

Unfortunately, living under at-will employment or right-to-work legislation can make you feel powerless. Your employer always seems to have the upper hand under these circumstances. Nonetheless, as you have read in the paragraphs above, there are exceptions to what seem like insurmountable odds.

If you believe your employer broke the law regarding your employment, you have the right to take civil action. An attorney can identify your options and counsel you on the legal path forward during an initial consultation. Ask us for help through our website or call (866) 345-6784 today to get started.

Remember, for a complete list of which state abides by which doctrine. Continue reading below!

Right-to-Work States

Arizona

Alabama

Arkansas

Florida

Idaho

Georgia

Indiana

Kansas

Iowa

Kentucky

Michigan

Louisiana

Mississippi

Missouri

Nebraska

Nevada

North Dakota

North Carolina

Oklahoma

South Dakota

South Carolina

Tennessee

Utah

Virginia

Texas

Wisconsin

Wyoming

Covenant of Good Faith States

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

Public Policy Exemption States

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

Implied Contract Exemption States

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Maine

Maryland

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Dakota

Ohio

Oregon

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Utah

Vermont

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

Return to the Blog

How It All Works

Call us or answer the questions on this site. Your category, location, and additional information will help us connect you to a legal professional and we’ll send you the results instantly.

Which Areas of Law?

We have attorneys in over 20 legal categories to choose from.

How Much Does This Cost?

We don’t charge you to be connected. Some legal categories require upfront fees while others do not. The legal professional will determine this with you before you commit to anything.