Like almost every state in the Union except Montana, Oregon follows the at-will rule. This means that, under state law, either side in a simple employment arrangement may terminate the relationship. During a difficult economy over the past year and a half, many people across the country have faced layoffs, reduced hours, or job termination due to business closures and bankruptcies.
Even in an at-will arrangement, however, job termination is not necessarily legal if it violated the terms of employment or was due to retaliation, discrimination, or other reasons. For Portland area residents who have lost their job and are wondering if the discharge was lawful, it is important to get more information on how to fight back against wrongful termination.
What is the at-will rule?
Under the at-will rule, the employer may change the terms of employment at any time and with no notice, and can change wages, end benefits or paid time off. Without any other policies, practice, or agreement, the employee can face sudden dismissal without cause.
The at-will presumption, however, is a default model that employers often modify by contract that states the terms of dismissal. And a collective bargaining agreement represents workers en masse that will address this with a termination clause stating cause, such as for poor performance, misconduct, or economic necessity.
Are there exceptions to the at-will rule?
There are specific exceptions to the at-will rule that have set a precedent through court decisions on how and when it is unlawful. These include:
- The public policy exception, similar to the retaliation exception, is often articulated in the state constitution or laws, and may include discharge for refusal to participate in illegal activity, commit perjury, or reporting illegal activity. Other exceptions may include engaging in public service, such as performing jury duty, or filing a workers’ compensation claim.
- Implied contract, which may be verbal assurances by the employer of the terms of employment, job security, or benefits, as well as company policy as outlined in employee handbooks or other materials.
- Implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, in which the courts apply a standard of fairness in personnel policies and assurance of job security.
There are also federal and state protections that protect workers against retaliation or discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, disability, religion or age. The employee may file a claim if they can prove that their discharge was for being a member of one of these protected classes. Under federal law, these protections apply to businesses with more than 15 employees.