Wisconsin Wrongful Termination Laws

Learn about illegal firings in Wisconsin.

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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 Wisconsin, 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 Wisconsin 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 employer in Wisconsin for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin employment lawyer.

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. However, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for citizenship status discrimination. 

Wisconsin law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age (40 and older), genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation (including having a history of or being identified with a particular orientation), arrest or conviction record, or military service. All Wisconsin employers must comply with these laws, even those with 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. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Department has offices in Madison and Milwaukee. 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. Wisconsin also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook or specific oral promises on which the employee relied. For example, if your employee handbook says that employees will receive a series of progressive discipline steps before being fired, your employer may not be able to fire you without going through those steps first. 

Wage and Hour Issues

Wisconsin employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Under federal and Wisconsin law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week may be eligible for overtime. Wisconsin recommends, but does not require, an unpaid meal break of 30 minutes close to a normal mealtime or near the middle of a shift, especially for employees working shifts of six hours or longer. Wisconsin employers that chooses to provide breaks of less than 30 minutes during the workday 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.”

Employers may not fire employees for exercising their rights to minimum wage or overtime or for testifying in wage violation proceedings.

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 Wisconsin, 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 Wisconsin law, employees who enlist, are inducted, or are ordered to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces for 90 days or more, or civilian employees who are asked to perform national defense work during an officially proclaimed emergency, may take leave for military service or training. Wisconsin employees who are called to state active duty in the National Guard of Wisconsin or any other state, or called to active service with the state laboratory of hygiene during a public health emergency, are also entitled to take military leave. Employees are entitled to reinstatement when their service is complete, and they may not be discharged without cause for up to one year after their return.
  • Jury duty. In Wisconsin, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury service are subject to a fine.
  • Voting leave. Employees in Wisconsin are entitled to take up to three consecutive hours off to cast their ballots; this time is unpaid.
  • Family and medical leave. Wisconsin 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.) Wisconsin also has its own family and medical leave law, which provides eligible employees with up to two weeks of leave for the employee's serious health condition and up to six weeks of leave to bond with a child or care for a family member with a serious health condition. Wisconsin's law applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Unlike the FMLA, employees may take leave to care for a domestic partner, or the parent of a domestic partner, with a serious health condition. (For more details, see Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave.)

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees because they have suffered work-related injuries, nor may they refuse to allow such employees to return to work when work is available.
  • Off-duty conduct. Employers may not fire employees for using lawful products, such as tobacco, while off-duty and away from the employer's premises. 

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Wisconsin 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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