Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit against your former employer. Montana offers a variety of job protections to employees. In fact, employees in Montana have more job security than employees in any other state. That's because Montana is the only state in the nation that doesn't follow a default at-will employment rule.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
While most job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted from layoffs, some workers have been fired for reasons related to the novel coronavirus. If this happened to you, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination, depending on the reason you were let go. For example, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:
- in retaliation for complaining about or reporting unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning
- for refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk of death or serous physical harm due to unsafe working conditions
- for refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order
- for taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (discussed below)
- because you have a preexisting condition (including your age) that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus, or
- because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19.
(Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)
In every state besides Montana, employees work at will during the entire length of their employment. This means that employers can fire employees in those states at any time and for any reason that isn't illegal. In Montana, however, employees work at will only during an initial probationary period. During that time, the employer may terminate the employee for any reason (except for illegal reasons discussed below), and the employee may quit for any reason.
Once the probationary period is over, employers in Montana must have good cause to fire their employees.
In general, private employers are allowed to set the length of their own probationary periods. However, if your employer doesn't establish a specific probationary period, it will last for six months from the day you were hired.
For your employer to have good cause to fire you, it must have a reasonable, work-related reason for doing so, including your failure to perform your job duties satisfactorily or actions that disrupt your employer's business operations.
As a general rule, your employer may not fire you for using a legal product away from the workplace. Exceptions to this rule include the use of any product (such as medical marijuana) that affects your ability to perform your job or conflicts with a reasonable qualification for your occupation.
In addition to the protections above, Montana employers may not fire employees for reasons that are illegal under federal and state law. Federal antidiscrimination laws make it illegal to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic, such as race, national origin, sex (including 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, for age discrimination, the minimum is 20 employees, and for citizenship status discrimination the minimum is four employees.
Montana law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, or marital status. All Montana employers, even those with only one employee, must comply with state law prohibiting discrimination.
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 Montana, the Human Rights Bureau of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Employment Relations Division enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. (You need to schedule a phone interview before filing a complaint, by calling 406-444-2884 or 1-800-542-0807.)
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.
If you have an employment contract, your employer is limited by the terms of your agreement. For example, your contract may state that you are entitled to certain procedures before being terminated, or that you cannot be fired without good cause for the entire duration of your employment (in other words, it may do away with a probationary period). If your employer fires you without following the terms of your agreement, you have a claim for breach of contract.
It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who exercise their rights under wage and hour laws.
In Montana, the minimum wage is generally $8.65 per hour in 2020 (increased to $8.75 in 2021, with annual increases after that based on a cost-of-living adjustment). There are many exception to the minimum wage, however, including for farm workers and some domestic workers. In addition, small employers—those with gross annual sales of $110,000 or less—may pay employees as little as $4 per hour under Montana law. However, if those employers are subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (as many employers are), they must pay at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Under federal and Montana law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime.
Montana does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks. However, under federal law, employers who choose to provide breaks of 20 minutes or less must 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.”
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 Montana, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Montana employment lawyer. While this article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer, it's not a comprehensive list of Montana employment law rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and advise you of the full extent of your legal claims.