Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Washington, 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 Washington 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 Washington employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Washington 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 Washington 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.
Washington law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, age (40 and older), genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, HIV or AIDS status, hepatitis C infection, membership in the state militia, use of a service animal, gender identity, or status as a victim of domestic violence. Washington employers must comply with these laws if they have eight or more 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 Washington Human Rights 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. Washington also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook or oral promises by the employer that indicate a promise of continued employment. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for good cause, your employer cannot fire you without a legitimate reason (such as misconduct or poor performance).
Employers may not fire employees for filing wage claims or otherwise trying to recover their unpaid wages.
The minimum wage in Washington is $13.50 per hour (as of 2020; it's adjusted annually). Under federal and Washington law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime.
Washington requires employers to provide both meal and rest breaks to employees. Employers must provide a 30-minute meal break to employees who work more than five consecutive hours; this time is unpaid unless the employee is on duty or is required to be at a site for the employer's benefit. Employees who work three or more hours longer than the regular workday are entitled to an additional half-hour meal break. Under federal law, employees must generally be paid for any breaks of 20 minutes or less and for any time when 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 Washington, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Washington 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.