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Published: 2008-03-26

Employment At Will In Georgia

It happens more often than people like to think. The boss calls an employee into her office for a meeting. During the meeting, she informs the employee that he's fired. The employee is given no explanation. His protests that he is doing good work and that he has no disciplinary problems are ignored. Can the employer do this?

Yes.THE "AT WILL" EMPLOYMENT DOCTRINEIn Georgia, most employees usually are regarded as employees "at will." This means that the employee works at the will of the employer and the employer can fire the worker for any reason at any time. It has been said that the worker can be terminated for "a good reason, a bad reason, or for no reason at all."The at will rule allows an employer to terminate employees for almost any reason. For example, Georgia courts have said that employers can terminate employees for refusing to commit a crime, reporting crimes committed by other employees, filing a workers' compensation claim, filing for bankruptcy, and testifying against the employer in a court proceeding.GROWTH OF INDUSTRY LED TO "AT WILL" RULEThe "employment at will" rule is an old legal doctrine that developed during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. It came into being because courts needed an easy way to define the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees in the developing economy.Courts had found it hard to resolve employment disputes because most employees of large companies did not have written employment contracts. Under the at-will rule, employers could hire and fire employees without going through the inconvenience of signing written employment contracts with all their employees.As a result, however, employees were left without job security. This persists even today in states like Georgia, which are called "at will employment" states.RISE OF LABOR UNIONS PROTECTED WORKERSThe "at will" employment doctrine and the behavior of employers who benefitted from it was one of the main forces behind the rise of labor unions in the early 1900s. Employees who joined a labor union could bargain as a group with their employer for a contract that applied to all employees who were part of the union. The labor contracts usually provided that the employer could not terminate, demote or punish an employee without good cause. Often, the contracts provided a grievance procedure that employees could use when they were treated unfairly.To combat the power of labor unions, many employers began lobbying the politicians in state government for a return to "at will" employment. Today, business interests often call the at will rule "right to work." The right to work is only a new name for the old "at will" rule. An employee's right to work means that he can be fired for a good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.TREND AWAY FROM "AT WILL" RULE IN OTHER STATESOver the past 30 years, many states have started to move away from the "at will" employment rule. In those states, employees who are terminated wrongfully can sue their employers for wrongful discharge and obtain money damages for their lost wages and lost opportunities.Georgia is one of the only remaining states in the United States that still refuses to provide any sort of job protection for employees. In case after case, the Georgia courts continue to say that an employer can fire an employee regardless of the employer's motives, and that the employee may not challenge the employer's decision in any way. A recent study found that Georgia is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to protecting the rights of workers.MOST WORKER PROTECTION COMES FROM FEDERAL LAWThere are still some limited protection for Georgia employees, but most of them come from Federal rather than state law. For example, Federal law forbids discrimination in a person's employment on the basis of race, sex, age, religion, national origin and disability. If a worker thinks he or she was terminated for one of these illegal reasons, and if that belief is eventually upheld in court or otherwise, the fired employee may be able to recover compensation or, in some instances, even get his or her job back.Under state law, a worker who has a written contract for a definite length of time (two years, for example), may be able to file a lawsuit for breach of contract if the worker is fired. Other Federal laws protect rights to safety on the job, wage and hour payments, employee benefit plans, family and medical leave, and union activity. In addition, public (government) employees have rights under the Constitution and may be able to appeal adverse employment actions through a grievance system.CAN WORKERS DO ANYTHING?Can Georgia workers change Georgia's employment laws? The only way to change the current law in Georgia is for workers to express their opinions to their legislators. Every year, lobbyists convince legislators to vote against laws that would protect workers. Employees also have a right to lobby their state representatives and senators, asking for changes in the treatment of workers under the law. Most importantly, workers should carefully examine the voting records of their representatives, educate themselves about the issues, and let their voices be heard.