Boss and applicant shaking hands outside business with at-will employment.

What Is At-Will Employment in Washington?

If you do not have an employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, you are an at-will employee. In Washington State, employment at will means that, with some exceptions, you could quit your job, or your boss could fire you at any time without giving a reason and for any reason.  However, it is wrongful to terminate an employee based on their protected status or activity.  A Washington employment attorney can help you determine if your employer terminated you wrongfully and if you might be eligible for compensation or other remedies.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

Generally, in Washington, your boss does not have to give a reason for firing you if you are an at-will employee. The employer could provide an unreasonable explanation, such as, everyone wearing blue shirts that day got terminated, or refuse to provide a reason. In some situations, however, the termination of an at-will employee can be illegal, which is defined as wrongful termination. For example:

Retaliation

It is wrongful termination if an employer fires an employee in retaliation for certain actions, including the employee’s participation in a protected activity. For example, firing an employee because the worker reported illegal practices of the company to the authorities is considered retaliation and wrongful termination. Refusing to draft and sign fraudulent documents to the government is another situation in which termination is wrongful. A common issue that gives rise to wrongful, retaliatory firing is when an employee files a complaint or grievance for sexual harassment. A supervisor demands sexual favors in exchange for continued employment or promotion. The worker takes legal action against the sexual harassment and gets fired in retaliation. The company could then face penalties for both sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Discrimination

In Washington, it is illegal to terminate an employee’s employment because of race, color, gender, national origin, religion, age, pregnancy, disability, or specific health issues. As recently as the 1960s, female teachers could get fired if they got married. Since then, laws have been developed to protect employees from such actions. Still, some employers continue to wrongfully terminate pregnant women, wanting to avoid the medical expenses and payment of wages during maternity leave.

Refusing to hire people because they fall into one of these protected groups is also illegal in Washington. Most employers are too clever to admit the reasons that they fire or refuse to hire people when the boss is acting in a discriminatory manner, which is called pretext. There are ways to show the court, however, that the behavior was discriminatory. For example, a supervisor got transferred to a new department and promptly fired everyone over the age of 60 or everyone who was a particular religion, even though these were valuable, productive workers. Only having people who are not members of a protected class working in middle or upper management of a corporation can be evidence of discrimination as well.

Contracts

Having an employment contract does not protect an employee from being terminated. However, the employer must act according to the terms of the agreement. If, for example, the employment contract says that the employee can only get fired “for good cause,” the boss must be able to show facts that support a valid reason for terminating the worker. Failure to do so is a breach of contract. 

Contact a Washington employment attorney today. Our Washington employment attorneys can help you explore your options if you think that your termination was improper whether you are an at-will employee or have an employment contract.  We will explain all of your options to you and give you advice so you can make an informed decision about pursuing your legal claim.