Oregon 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 Oregon, 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. For example, if your Oregon 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 Oregon employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Oregon 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 Oregon employment lawyer. To learn more about Oregon employment law, contact the office of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
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. However, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for citizenship status discrimination.
Oregon law prohibits employers with one or more employees from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (18 and older), genetic information, marital status, family relationship, sexual orientation, or association with a member of a protected class. Employers with six or more employees may not discriminate on the basis of physical or mental disability.
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. The Civil Rights Division of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Division has offices in Portland. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will 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 a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. Oregon also recognizes implied employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook promising job security. 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
Oregon employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $9.25 per hour. Under federal and Oregon law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Oregon requires employers to provide both meal breaks and rest breaks. Employees who work at least six hours are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break. For certain jobs, employers may provide a paid meal period of 20 minutes, if the employer can show that this is industry practice or custom. If the employee’s shift lasts seven hours or less, the meal break must occur between hours two and five. For employees who work longer shifts, the meal break must be between hours three and six.
Oregon employees are also entitled to a paid ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction thereof) worked. The rest period must be in addition to, and taken separately from, the meal break. The rest period may not be added to the meal period or deducted from the beginning or end of the shift to reduce the length of the total work period.
Under federal law, employers must pay for shorter employee breaks during the day (20 minutes or less). Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.” Oregon employers may not fire employees for filing wage claims, testifying in wage hearings, or otherwise exercising their rights under wage and hour laws.
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 Oregon, 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.) Under Oregon law, employees in the Oregon National Guard, Oregon organized militia, or the organized militia of any other state, may take unpaid leave when called to active duty. They are also entitled to reinstatement when their leave is complete.
- Jury duty. In Oregon, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service, and employers may not require them to use annual, sick, or vacation leave. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury duty may be subject to special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Family and medical leave. Oregon 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. (To learn more, see Nolo’s FMLA page.) Oregon also has its own family and medical leave law, which applies to employers with 25 or more employees. While Oregon's law is similar to the FMLA, it covers a wider set of family members, including parents-in-law, domestic partners, grandparents, and grandchildren. Unlike the FMLA, employees may also take leave to care for a child who is ill but does not have a serious health condition. For information about Oregon’s leave laws, see Nolo’s article Family and Medical Leave in Oregon.
- Bereavement leave. Under Oregon's family and medical leave law, employees may take up to two weeks of bereavement leave within 60 days of the death of a family member.
- Crime victim leave. Employers with six or more employees must give employees time off to handle medical, legal, and safety issues arising from domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or harassment.
- Military spouse leave. Employers with 25 or more employees must allow eligible employees to take up to 14 days of unpaid time off when a spouse in the Armed Forces, National Guard, or military reserves is deployed or notified of a call to active duty.
Other State Claims
- Workers' compensation. Employers with six or more employees may not discriminate against an employee who has filed a workers' compensation claim, testified in a workers' compensation proceeding, or otherwise exercised his or her rights under state workers' compensation laws.
- Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing employees who have reported workplace safety violations, filed complaints regarding such violations, or testified in proceedings regarding such violations.
- Whistleblowing. Employers may not fire employees for reporting illegal activity at the workplace or testifying in certain government proceedings. Employers may also not fire employees for refusing to engage in illegal activity at the workplace.
- Off-duty conduct. Oregon protects an employee's right to engage in the lawful use of tobacco products while off-duty and away from the employer's premises.
- Other protected categories. Oregon also protects an employee's status as a parent with a court-imposed medical support order, status as a victim of domestic violence, and refusal to attend an employer-sponsored meeting with the primary purpose of communicating the employer’s political or religious views.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to an Oregon employment lawyer. Whether you want to get your job back, negotiate a settlement, or file a lawsuit, a lawyer can help you assert your legal rights. A lawyer can also inform you of any other claims that you might have under state or local law.