New York State and City Propose an End to At-Will Employment
By Jill Kahn Marshall and Anna Beckelman
As an employment lawyer, I often find myself having the same difficult conversation with prospective clients who believe they were wrongfully discharged. I explain that while the circumstances of the termination may seem unfair, if the worker was an at-will employee (like most employees in the United States), then the termination was likely not unlawful unless it involved discriminatory animus. Even employees who were plainly bullied at work face an uphill battle under the current law, unless that bullying can be tied to a protected characteristic. However, legislation recently proposed in New York State and New York City aims to change these circumstances, requiring good cause before an employer can terminate an employee. New York City currently has such a law that applies to fast food workers, but these laws as drafted would apply to nearly all private employees.
The Safeguarding Employees and Accountability for Termination (“SEAT”) Act was introduced in the New York State Senate on March 6, 2023. SEAT would provide employees with the right to sue their employers for “wrongful discharge,” which is defined as a discharge that:
- is not made for “good cause” and the employee has completed a “probationary period of employment”; or
- is in violation of an express provision of the employer’s written personnel policy and deprives the employee of a “fair and reasonable opportunity” to remain employed.
The Act defines “good cause” as “any reasonable job-related grounds” based on: (a) the employee’s failure to satisfactorily perform job duties; (b) the employee’s disruption of the employer’s operations, unless such disruption is protected activity; (c) the employee’s material or repeated violation of the employer’s written policies; or (d) other legitimate business reasons determined by the employer while exercising reasonable business judgment. The “probationary period” during which an employee may still be discharged at-will can vary according to employer policy, but may not exceed six months. The bill creates a private right of action with a statute of limitations of six years from the date of termination.
The State’s proposed legislation comes on the heels of a similar proposal introduced in the New York City Council in December 2022, which would require employers seeking to terminate an employee following a probationary period to show “just cause” or a “bona fide economic reason” for the termination. This bill expands upon a just-cause termination requirement that has already been imposed upon fast food employers in New York City.
If these bills become law, they will fundamentally change most employer-employee relationships in New York State. Though certain employee contracts already require termination for cause, the vast majority of employers can terminate employees “for any reason or no reason at all” based on an at-will relationship. Under this new paradigm, documenting employee performance and discipline and distributing a written handbook setting forth internal company policies will become necessary if an employer wants to show good cause for termination. A change in policy in New York may also lead the way for other states, such that the dominance of at-will employment relationships in the United States may begin to erode. Employers and employees alike are advised to monitor these developments.
This article is intended as a general discussion of these issues only and is not to be considered legal advice or relied upon. For more information, please contact RPJ Partner Jill Kahn Marshall, who counsels individuals and corporations in the areas of employment law, litigation and dispute resolution, and healthcare. Ms. Marshall is admitted to practice law in New York and Massachusetts, as well as the District Courts for Massachusetts and the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York.