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.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
A shocking number of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you were fired during the pandemic? Depending on the reason you were dismissed, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination. For instance, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:
- in retaliation after you complained about or reported 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 (FMLA) (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.)
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.
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.
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.
Oregon employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $11.25 per hour in 2020. (Employers in Portland and nonurban counties must pay a different rate; see the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries minimum wage rate summary for more information.)
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.
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:
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.