Iowa Wrongful Termination Laws

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Gavel and Scales

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Iowa, 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 Iowa 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 Iowa for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Iowa 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 Iowa employment lawyer. To learn more about Iowa employment law, contact the Iowa Labor Services Division.

Discriminatory Firing

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 employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees; the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.  

Iowa law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (18 and older), disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. State law also prohibits wage discrimination based on any of these protected traits. Iowa employers with four or more employees must comply with these laws.  

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 Iowa, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. 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 Iowa, 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 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. 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

In Iowa, employees are entitled to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Iowa has no state overtime law. Under federal law, though, employees who work more than 40 hours a week may be eligible for overtime pay. Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Iowa is not one of them. However, if employers choose to offer breaks, federal law requires that they pay employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less. It is illegal for Iowa employers to fire employees for filing wage claims, testifying in wage hearings, or otherwise instituting actions to recover unpaid wages.

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 Iowa, 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.) Iowa law also protects employees who are members of the Guard, reserves, military forces of the state, or civil air patrol. Employers may not discriminate against these employees or discharge them due to their military affiliations. In addition, these employees are entitled to take leave when called to federal or state temporary duty or service, and they must be reinstated upon their return with the same pay, benefits, and seniority.
  • Voting. Employers in Iowa must provide enough paid time off to give employees a total of three consecutive hours off work (when combined with the employee’s usual non-work hours) while polls are open. If an employee has three consecutive hours off while polls are open, the employer need not provide additional time.
  • Jury duty. Employees are entitled to take unpaid leave for jury duty. Employers may not threaten or coerce an employee for receiving a notice or serving 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.
  • Family and medical leave. Iowa 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. 
  • Pregnancy disability leave. Iowa requires employers with four or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to eight weeks of unpaid leave when they are temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. See Nolo’s article Family and Medial Leave in Iowa to learn more.

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees for filing claims for workers' compensation benefits. 
  • Work safety. Employers are prohibited from terminating employees who file complaints about workplace safety violations or who refuse to work under dangerous working conditions. 
  • Whistleblowing. Employers cannot fire employees for reporting violations of the law, gross abuse of authority or funds, or other similar activities on behalf of the employer.
  • Refusal to take polygraph test. In Iowa, it's a violation of public policy to terminate an employee for refusing to take a polygraph test. 

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to an Iowa 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.

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