FAQ – Employment Law

Can my employer fire me for no reason?

Generally, yes.  Minnesota is an “at-will” employment state.  This means that in most cases, your employer can fire you at any time for any reason, for a bad reason, or for no reason at all.

So your employer can fire you for complaining about your boss’s lack of ethics; for speaking up in a meeting about problems within the company; because your boss doesn’t like your personality; even because your boss doesn’t like your shoes.

The doctrine of at-will employment is a very powerful thing. Just because something is unfair doesn’t make it unlawful. And we can only help if we can identify unlawful conduct. But there are several exceptions to employment at-will, as detailed below.

Can my employer make me quit?

No. Your employer cannot force you to quit your job. And if you quit–even if your employer tells you she’s going to fire you if you don’t quit–you may lose your rights to unemployment benefits or to sue for wrongful termination.

Can my employer retaliate against me?

Generally, yes. Most retaliation is not illegal. Except for when it is.

Is it illegal for my employer to bully me?

Generally, no. Bullying in the workplace isn’t necessarily illegal. Courts have reasoned that since your employer can fire you at any time for any reason, it can–in most cases–also treat you like garbage. This is, of course, unfair. But not unlawful.

Your employer cannot, however, harass you or otherwise treat you differently because of your membership in a protected class.

Are there exceptions to employment at-will?

Yes. The main exceptions are set forth below:

Contract. If you and your employer signed an employment contract, it may contain language that says your employer can only fire you “for cause” (i.e., a good reason). Additionally, if your employer made an oral or written statement (including pre-employment statements) that tends to limit its right to fire you at any time for any reason, a court may find that your employer had a contractual obligation to refrain from terminating you without a good reason.

Employee Handbooks/Policies. Employee handbooks, manuals, and policies often contain provisions that limit an employer’s ability to terminate employees. For example, an employee handbook may set forth a discipline procedure that the employer must institute prior to termination. Review your employee handbook to determine your rights.

Union Agreements. If you are a union employee, your union may have entered into a collective bargaining agreement with your employer that lays out the circumstances under which your employer can fire you. Contact your union representative if you are terminated to determine if your employer’s actions are in violation of the agreement. Additionally, your employer cannot fire you for participating in any union activity.

Discrimination. State and federal laws prohibit employers from terminating employees on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, receipt of public assistance, or age.

Retaliation. State and federal laws prohibit employers from terminating employees in retaliation for exercising family medical leave, bringing a discrimination or harassment claim, participating in a discrimination or harassment investigation, discussing wages with other employees, or blowing the whistle on illegal or improper conduct.

Public Policy. Employers may not terminate employees for reasons that conflict with public policy, such as participating in jury duty or complying with a subpoena.

Am I eligible for unemployment benefits if my employer fired me for a bad reason or no reason?

Yes. Even if your situation does not fall into one of the exceptions above, you may still be eligible for unemployment benefits if your employer did not terminate you for misconduct.

What is illegal discrimination?

Discrimination is treating someone differently based on his/her membership in a “protected class.” Protected classes include race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, receipt of public assistance, and age. Even if an act is unfair or unreasonable, it may not be illegal unless it was carried out based on the victim’s membership in a protected class.

What is illegal harassment?

Harassment is unwanted conduct based on an individual’s membership in a “protected class” (see the preceding paragraph for a list of protected classes) that creates a hostile environment or adversely affects the individual’s employment. Most harassment claims are for sexual harassment. While morally wrong, harassment is not legally wrong unless the reason you are being mistreated is because of your association with a protected class.

Can I sue my employer for creating a hostile work environment?

It depends. Courts have determined that an illegal “hostile work environment” is one where severe or pervasive mistreatment based on a protected class interferes with someone’s employment. This means that even if your employer creates a hostile environment, it’s not illegal unless you can show the hostility was based on your membership in a protected class.

Can I take medical or parental leave?

State and federal laws require some employers to provide eligible employees with leave for the birth, adoption, or foster care of a child, and to care for a serious health condition of the employee or his/her close relative. Eligible employees may sue for damages if their employer denies or interferes with their use of leave.

Is my employer required to accommodate my disability?

Employers must reasonably accommodate a qualified employee’s disability, unless the accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the employer.

Does my employer have to pay overtime compensation?

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), employers have a duty to pay “non-exempt” employees overtime compensation in an amount equal to one and a half times your normal hourly rate for any hours worked over 40 in a week. If you are a non-exempt employee and your employer fails to pay overtime compensation, you can sue your employer for unpaid wages. Additionally, it’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for invoking your rights under the FLSA.

The issue in most unpaid overtime cases is whether you were an “exempt” employee. The Department of Labor provides a list of commonly used exemptions.

Can my employer prevent me from discussing wages with other employees?

No. A provision under the Women’s Economic Security Act makes it illegal for employers to prevent any employees from discussing wages or for retaliating against any employees who discuss wages. Employees can enforce their rights under this law by suing employers who violate it.

How long does my former employer have to pay unpaid wages?

In Minnesota, your former employer has to pay  your earned wages within 24 hours of termination if it fired you, and no later than the next payday if you resigned. If your employer fails to comply with these requirements, it must pay your unpaid wages and a penalty equal to a day’s wages for each day it remains in noncompliance, up to 15 days.

How long do I have to bring a claim for wrongful termination?

In Minnesota, you may have as little as 300 days from the date of termination to assert your rights against the person or entity who unlawfully fired you. If you fail to bring a claim within this amount of time, you may lose your right to sue forever.

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