What Does At-Will Employment Mean In New York?

By Douglas Lipsky

When it comes to firing workers in New York, employers have an unfair advantage. All workers in the state are employed “at will,” which means they can be fired with or without cause and with no advance warning. Employers cannot terminate employees for unlawful or discriminatory reasons, however, or in violation of an employment contract. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, talk to an employment lawyer about your legal rights. 

The Law Protects You Against Discrimination

Federal, state, and local laws protect employees from being fired for discriminatory reasons. These laws include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act
  • The New York Labor Law
  • The New York State Human Rights Law
  • The New York City Human Rights Law 

These laws prevent employers from being terminated for being members of a protected class. Protected classes include race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. 

For example, an employer can terminate an employee by claiming the reason is poor performance. However, if the employee can prove the real reason was because of gender, she or he may have a valid wrongful termination claim based on discrimination. 

Protections Against Retaliation

Employees are also protected from termination based on retaliation for complaining about conduct prohibited by state and federal law. This means that workers cannot be fired for complaining about or taking legal action against discrimination, harassment, wage violations, reporting safety violations, or filing a workers’ compensation claim for a workplace injury.

In addition, employees are protected from retaliation for refusing to participate in illegal activity or for taking leave for required public service such as jury duty or military reserve activities.

Protection Under Employment Contracts

Employees cannot be wrongfully terminated in at-will states if they have signed an employment contract that spells out the terms and conditions of their employment, such as the duration of employment, job requirements, or grounds for termination. In short, if there is a written employment contract in place, an employer cannot terminate the employee without cause, and can only do so according to the terms specified in the employment contract. For example: if an employer has guaranteed an employee 2 years of employment but fires the employee without cause after 6 months, the employer is required to pay the employee for the remaining 1.5 years under the contract.

In addition, workers may also be protected under an “implied contract.” This may come in the form of an employee manual or other documentation an employee is required to read or sign before their employment begins that states or implies an employee can only be fired for cause. In other words, implied employment contracts may override at-will rules and only allow an employer to fire an employee for a viable cause (e.g. poor performance, violating employment policies).

Collective Bargaining Agreements

Employees who are members of labor unions and work under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement are not considered to be at-will employees and can only be terminated for causes specified in the agreement.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact that New York is an at-will state for purposes of employment, employees have legal recourse against wrongful termination. The best way to protect your employment rights is to consult with an experienced employment law attorney.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.