Federal government cracks down on ‘at-will’ employment agreements

Most jobs in America are “at will,” which means that the employee can be fired at any time for any reason (and can also quit at any time for any reason).

Very often, an “at-will” employment agreement is included in an employee handbook, or the employee is otherwise asked to sign off on an agreement acknowledging that the employment can be terminated at any time.

But recently, the National Labor Relations Board has been cracking down on these agreements, and finding that they sometimes violate federal law.

The reason? By law, employees have the right to talk about or form a union, and a union can bargain for other types of arrangements – such as ones in which an employee can’t be fired for any reason, but only for “good cause.”

If an at-will employment agreement appears to rule out an employee’s ability to try to change the agreement, this could be illegal.

One recent case involved an Arizona woman who claimed she crossed out a provision stating that the at-will relationship couldn’t be “changed in any way” before signing off on her employment handbook.

She later got fired due to a series of altercations with her supervisor after complaining about wages and working conditions. The woman, along with the NLRB, brought a claim for unfair labor practices against the employer.

A judge found that the agreement (which said that the at-will relationship couldn’t be changed “in any way”) violated her right to engage in concerted activity with her co-workers, and that she was wrongfully fired.

In another recent case, a union and the NLRB challenged an agreement stating that “no oral or written statements…regarding my employment” could alter an employee’s at-will status.

The NLRB argued that the agreement violated the workers’ right to communicate with one another regarding wages and working conditions, because workers could interpret it as prohibiting them from exercising these rights.

The case settled out of court, but it shows how aggressively the NLRB is acting toward what it perceives as overbroad at-will agreements.