Posted August 27, 20203:32 pm
The at-will employment standard became the legal norm during what was known as the Supreme Court's Lochner era at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, the Supreme Court considered the freedom to contract almost sacrosanct, and attempts to create humane, legally enforceable working standards, such as regulating child labor or establishing a minimum wage, were struck down as impeding on individuals' freedom to contract. Most of the decisions and arguments of the Lochner era have become artifacts of the past, but the at-will standard for employment agreement remains the national standard.
Several judicial and statutory exceptions to at-will employment have developed over the last 60 years, such as anti-discrimination, workplace safety, and whistleblowing protections, but these exceptions are narrow and are applied inconsistently. Further, employees bear the burden of proving their termination was due to their assertion of a protected right. These sparse protections make the United States an outlier among its peer countries, like Germany and the United Kingdom, which have rejected the at-will employment standard and have adopted much more robust employee protections.
It is long past time that the United States joins its peers and adopts a national standard of just cause employment. The rights and concerns of workers deserve just as much care and consideration as their employers, as our standard for employment agreements should reflect. The plaintiffs in Clayton County won a massive victory for workers, but we must continue the fight for more just workplaces.