Vermont Wrongful Termination Laws

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Vermont, 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 Vermont 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 Vermont employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Vermont 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 Vermont employment lawyer. To learn more about Vermont employment law, contact the office of the  Vermont Department of Labor.

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.    

Vermont law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age (18 and older), HIV or AIDS status, genetic information, sexual orientation, place of birth, gender identity, or credit report or credit history. All Vermont 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 Vermont Human Rights Commission  enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Commission has offices in Montpelier.  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. Vermont also recognizes implied employment contracts based on oral promises, statements in an employee handbook, or a course of conduct that signals the employer's intention to restrict its ability to terminate at will. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for certain offenses, you may have an implied contract that you won't be fired unless you commit one of those offenses.  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

In Vermont, employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $9.15 per hour. The minimum wage will increase to $9.60 in 2016, $10 in 2017, and $10.50 in 2018. While  Vermont has no overtime law, federal law requires employers to pay employees overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek.

Vermont employers must give employees reasonable opportunities to eat and use the restroom during the workday. Under federal law, any breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally be paid.  Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”

In Vermont, employers may not fire employees for sharing information about their wages or asking fellow employees about their wages. Employers also may not fire employees for exercising their rights under federal wage and hour laws.

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 Vermont, 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 Vermont law, employees who are members of the U.S. Armed Forces reserves, an organized unit of the National Guard, or the ready reserves may take up to 15 days of unpaid leave per year for military drills, training, or other temporary duty under military authority.  Members of the Vermont National Guard who are ordered to state active duty by the governor are also entitled to take unpaid leave from their civilian jobs. These employees may not be required to exhaust their vacation time or other accrued leave. Employees must be reinstated once their training or military service is complete.
  • Jury duty. In Vermont, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employees may not be penalized or lose any benefits, including seniority, based on their service. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury service are subject to fines.
  • Family and medical leave. Vermont 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.) Vermont also has its own family and medical leave law, which applies to smaller employers that are not covered by the FMLA. Employers  must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for similar reasons allowed under the FMLA. Employers with 15 or more employees must provide time off for the serious illness of the employee or the employee's family member, and employers with 10 or more employees must provide time off for pregnancy, birth, or adoption.  
  • Other protected leave.  Vermont law also requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide  up to 24 hours off per year for a child's school activities, routine medical or dental appointments for a family member, appointments for a family member’s professional care, or a family member’s medical emergency. Employees may take leave for a wider set of family members than the FMLA for these purposes, including civil union partners and parents-in-law. However, employees may only take four hours of leave in any 30-day period. (For details, see Nolo’s article on Vermont Family and Medical Leave.)

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers are prohibited from firing employes for filing workers' compensation claims.
  • Workplace safety. Employers may not fire employees for making complaints about violations of workplace safety laws.

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Vermont 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.

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