Hawaii Wrongful Termination Laws
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Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Hawaii, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Hawaii employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Hawaii for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Hawaii employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced Hawaii employment lawyer. To learn more about Hawaii employment law, contact the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only certain employers must comply with these laws. For most types of discrimination, the law apply to employers with 15 or more employees. However, the prohibition against age discrimination applies to employers with 20 or more employees, and the ban against citizenship status discrimination applies to employers with only four or more employees.
Hawaii law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (any age), ancestry, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, arrest and court record (unless there is a conviction that directly relates to the job), gender identity and gender expression, status as a victim of domestic or sexual violence, or credit history or credit report (unless credit information directly relates to a bona fide occupational qualification). In Hawaii, all employers must comply with these laws, even if they have only one employee.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.
Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. In Hawaii, the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission enforces state discrimination laws. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will also record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.
Breach of Contract
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In Hawaii, an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer doesn't make express promises, but acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook says that employees won't be fired unless certain disciplinary steps are followed, that may create an implied contract that gives you certain rights before being terminated. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
Wage and Hour Issues
Employees in Hawaii are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.75 an hour. Employees are also entitled to overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Hawaii is not one of them. However, if employers choose to offer paid breaks of 20 minutes or less, federal law requires that the breaks be paid. It is illegal for employers in Hawaii to fire an employee for filing a wage complaint, testifying in a wage hearing, or otherwise exercising wage rights under state and federal law.
Time Off Work
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Hawaii, these rights include:
- Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Hawaii law provides that National Guard members are entitled to unlimited unpaid leave while on active duty and while traveling to and from active service. These employees must be reinstated to their former positions, and they may not be terminated without cause for up to one year after they return.
- Jury duty. Employees are entitled to take unpaid leave for jury duty. Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal penalties and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Voting. Employers in Hawaii must give employees up to two hours of paid leave to vote, unless the employee already has two consecutive hours off while the polls are open.
- Family and medical leave. Hawaii employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position once their leave is over. Hawaii also has its own family and medical leave law that applies to employers with 100 or more employees. Hawaii's law give employees the right to four weeks off to bond with a new child or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Hawaii's law has more relaxed eligibility requirements than the FMLA and covers a broader set of family members than the FMLA. For more information, see Nolo’s article Hawaii Family and Medical Leave.
- Domestic violence leave. Employees who are the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking must be given time off to seek medical attention, to obtain legal or social services, to relocate, or to institute legal proceedings. Employers with fewer than 50 employees must provide up to five days of unpaid leave per year for such purposes; employers with 50 or more employees must provide up to 30 days of unpaid leave per year for such purposes.
Other State Claims
- Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees because they suffer work-related injuries and are eligible for worker's compensation benefits.
- Work safety. Employers may not terminate employees for exercising their rights under state workplace safety laws.
- Whistleblowing. Employers cannot fire or otherwise retaliate against employees for reporting illegal activity to their employers or to a government agency.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Hawaii employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.