Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Pennsylvania, 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 Pennsylvania 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.
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.
Also, if you were essentially forced to quit your job because of serious coronavirus-related safety hazards that put you at risk, you might have grounds to sue your employer for “wrongful constructive termination” in violation of public policy. In order to succeed with this argument, you would generally have to show that your former employer intentionally created or allowed working conditions that violated public policy (such as laws requiring a safe work environment) and were so intolerable that any reasonable person in your position would have been compelled to resign. (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 Pennsylvania employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania employment lawyer. To learn more about Pennsylvania employment law, contact the office of the Pennsylvania 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.
Pennsylvania law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 to 70), disability, relationship or association with a disabled person, use of a service animal, or having a GED rather than a high school diploma. Pennsylvania employers must comply with these laws if they have at least four 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. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. 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. Pennsylvania also recognizes implied contracts based on clear oral promises. For example, if your employer promised during your job interview that you would not be fired for the first year of your employment, you may have an employment contract. Pennsylvania also recognizes implied contracts based on statements in an employee handbook, which the employee bargained for and for which the employee provided something in return. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a breach of contract claim.
It is illegal for employers to fire employees in retaliation for exercising their rights under wage and hour laws or for participating in wage and hour proceedings. The minimum wage in Pennsylvania has been $7.50 an hour, but it will rise to $8 an hour on July 1, 2020, and in further incremental steps until it reaches $9.50 on January 1, 2022.
Under federal and Pennsylvania law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Pennsylvania law gives employees the right to a 30-minute unpaid meal break after five hours of work. Under federal law, employers who 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.”
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 Pennsylvania, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Pennsylvania 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.