Virginia Wrongful Termination Laws
Learn about workplace protections for employees in Virginia.
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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 Virginia, 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 Virginia employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, 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 Virginia employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Virginia 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 Virginia employment lawyer. To learn more about Virginia employment law, contact the office of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
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.
Virginia law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age, genetic information, or marital status. Virginia's law applies to employers with more than five employees but fewer than 15 employees.
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 Virginia, the Division of Human Rights enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Division has offices in Richmond. If your employer has between six to 14 employees, you must file with the Division of Human Rights. If your employers has 15 or more employees, you must file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. 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. Virginia also recognizes implied employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook or oral promises on which the employee relied. For example, if your boss promised that you wouldn't be fired for the first year of your employment, and you moved across the country to accept the job, you may have 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
Employees in Virginia are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. While Virginia has no overtime law, federal law requires employers to pay employees overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Virginia does not. Under federal law, though, employers that choose to offer breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”
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 Virginia, 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 Virginia law, members of the Virginia National Guard, Virginia State Defense Force, or naval militia who are called to active duty by the governor are entitled to take up to five years of unpaid leave, with reinstatement when their service is complete.
- Jury duty. In Virginia, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employees may not be penalized or required to use sick or vacation leave. An employee who has appeared for at least four hours for jury duty cannot be required to start a work shift after 5 p.m. that day or before 3 a.m. the following morning. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury service are subject to criminal sanctions.
- Family and medical leave. Virginia 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.
Other State Claims
- Workers' compensation. Employers are prohibited from firing employees for filing workers' compensation claims or testifying in workers' compensation hearings.
- Workplace safety. Employers may not fire employees for making complaints about violations of workplace health and safety laws or participating in government investigations into such violations.
- Illegal activity. Employers may not fire employees who refuse to participate in illegal activity.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Virginia 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.