Getting Your Terms Right: “Right to Work” -vs- “At-Will Employment”
“This is a right-to-work state and I’ll fire whoever I want for whatever reason I want.” The problem with this statement that employers often make is that “right-to-work” laws involve employee rights during an employment relationship, particularly in the context of labor unions. The “employment at-will” doctrine is what governs employer and employee rights in terminating an employment relationship. Many people wrongfully use the term “right-to-work” interchangeably with the phrase “employment at-will” because they do not understand the difference.
The right-to-work doctrine, originally established in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, gives employees the option to refrain from engaging in collective activity such as labor organizing and union representation. A right-to-work state is a state that does not require union membership as a condition of employment. In other states, a person applying for a job where the employees are unionized could be required to join the union as a requirement of being hired. Because Arizona is a right-to-work state, employees are not required to be members of a union or pay union dues.
The employment at-will doctrine applies when an employee works for an employer without a written contract that sets forth the terms of the employment relationship. This is the situation for the vast majority of employment relationships.
Under the employment at-will doctrine, both the employer and employee can terminate an employment relationship at any time without consequence. The employment relationship can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all. The employer cannot, however, terminate an employee for an “illegal” reason, such as termination based on discrimination against certain protected classes such as sex, gender, race, religion or national origin; violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act; and termination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
So, employers can terminate employees who do not have a written employment contract for any non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reason. This is because Arizona is an at-will employment state, not because it is a right-to-work state.