At-Will vs. Contract Employment: How Each Relates to Wrongful Termination
Wrongful termination laws are in place to protect employees against being fired for illegal reasons. Below, we answer frequently asked questions regarding wrongful termination in Ohio.
What is the difference between an at-will employee and a contract employee in Ohio?
In Ohio, an at-will employee is any employee who does not have a contract that limits the reasons the employee can be terminated. Examples are collective bargaining agreements (union contracts), and contracts that some executives and high-level employees are able to negotiate to limit the circumstances under which they can be fired. The overwhelming majority of employees do not have such contracts, and are therefore “at-will” employees. The employer of an at-will employee can fire that employee at any time for any reason without fear of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Most employees do not have the bargaining power to negotiate contractual protections against termination “at-will” by their employers.
Collective bargaining agreements and some individual employment contracts protect the employee by limiting the reasons for termination to things that constitute “just cause.”
Examples of common “just cause” reasons include:
- Employee missed too much work, or is late too often;
- Employee fails to improve job performance after fair warning
- Employee disobeys direct orders, is caught stealing, fighting, or bullying other employees, etc.
Am I a contract employee or an at-will employee?
Most employers make you sign paperwork before you start working. However, just signing a document does not make you a contract employee. In fact, very few employees are contract employees.
Under Ohio law, the only employees who are considered contract employees include:
- Workers who have an employment contract specifying the length of time they are to work for an employer (these contracts must have a specific start and end date)
- Union workers who are part of a collective bargaining agreement
- Certain government employees
If you do not fall within one of these categories, you are most likely an at-will employee.
What happens in a wrongful termination case for contract employees?
If a contract employee is fired without just cause during the term of the contract, that employee can file a lawsuit for wrongful termination to recover damages for breach of the contract. The damages would include the value of the wages and benefits lost because of the wrongful termination.
What happens in a wrongful termination case for at-will employees?
Although at-will employees can generally be fired at any time for any reason, there are some important exceptions to the at-will rule. Your employer cannot fire you for a reason that has been made illegal by state or federal law.
For example, an employer cannot fire you based on the following illegal reasons:
- Your race, sex, or nationality
- Your disability
- Your pregnancy
- In retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim
- In retaliation for reporting certain illegal activity
- You are called away for military service
- You qualified for and took FMLA leave
- You took time off of work for jury duty
If your employer fires you for one of these discriminatory reasons, you might have a claim for wrongful termination. If you win your case, you will be entitled to damages for lost wages and benefits, and perhaps even punitive damages if the employer’s behavior was especially egregious.
Do I need to hire an attorney to help me with my wrongful termination case?
The short answer is yes, you should hire an experienced employment law attorney to represent you in any wrongful termination case against your former employer. Speaking with an employment attorney in Ohio will help determine whether you have a good case, and a skilled attorney will be essential to winning your case or achieving a favorable settlement before trial.