The Movement to End At-Will Employment Is Getting Serious
Unlike much of the world, the U.S. doesn’t ensure “just cause” employment. This coalition in Illinois hopes to change that.
On March 31, a group of worker centers, unions, community groups and policy organizations in Illinois officially formed a new coalition, Stable Jobs Now, that aims to dramatically shift the power balance between workers and bosses by eliminating “at-will” employment — the practice that allows employers to fire their employees on a whim.
In most of the rest of the world, workers are protected by the “just cause” principle, which says they can only be terminated for legitimate, documented reasons connected to poor job performance. But in the United States, the at-will doctrine allows bosses to arbitrarily fire employees for any reason or no reason whatsoever, with the burden of proving it was an unlawful dismissal placed on the worker.
“It’s like we’re disposable to them,” said Estrella Hernandez, who was abruptly fired from her stitching job at a Chicago-area factory in December 2020. “I got to work one morning at 4am and the supervisor told me I couldn’t be there, that they had let me go the day before… I asked the reason and they said they didn’t have to tell me and told me to just go home.”
Hernandez believes she was fired as illegal retaliation for raising concerns about the inability to practice social distancing in her cramped work area, but she can’t prove it, especially since her employer never provided a reason for her dismissal.
Predominantly Black and Latino workers in Chicago’s low-wage jobs routinely face illegal retaliation for reporting workplace injustices like unsafe conditions, wage theft, injuries, sexual harassment and discrimination. The at-will doctrine makes it practically impossible for employees to prove they were fired as retaliation for speaking up against illegal abuses.
A new study published by Raise the Floor Alliance, a group of Chicago worker centers, and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that 37 percent of Illinois workers have been fired for an unfair reason and 42 percent have been terminated for no reason at all, with Black and Latino workers the most likely to be fired. A third of those who faced unfair discharge say it was over raising concerns about problems on the job.
“While conditions were bad for working people well before the pandemic, this past year has highlighted and exacerbated these conditions,” said Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor Alliance.
The Stable Jobs Now coalition is pushing for passage of the Secure Jobs Act, a bill recently introduced in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. The legislation would make Illinois the second state to adopt a just cause system. Only Montana currently restricts at-will employment, a law dating back to 1987.
Among other measures, the Secure Jobs Act would lay out valid reasons for termination, grant workers a fair chance to improve their job performance before being fired, prohibit “constructive discharge” where employers pressure workers into resigning by creating a hostile work environment, outlaw “Do Not Hire” lists (a practice prevalent in the temp industry), and allow workers to accrue severance pay that employers would have to disburse upon termination. The law would be enforced by the Illinois Department of Employment Security, but would also permit fired workers to sue their employers under a private right of action.
“At-will employment has been a longstanding problem in the state and at-will termination has long endangered the stability of our communities,” said State Rep. Carol Ammons, the Secure Jobs Act’s chief sponsor in the Illinois House of Representatives. Ammons previously spearheaded a successful legislative effort to enshrine more rights for temp workers in Illinois.
The new campaign in Illinois is part of a budding national movement to end the at-will employment system. In the past two years, Philadelphia and New York City have both enacted just cause bills covering parking lot attendants and fast-food workers, respectively.
“This cries out for a signature federal bill, however long it takes to pass,” said Shaun Richman, an In These Times contributor and advocate for a national just cause rule. “In the absence of that, you’ve got these sort of rebel cities and blue states that are introducing their own bills as signal efforts.”
“This movement is still at an early stage, perhaps where the Fight for $15 or the paid sick days movements were a decade ago, which is why the work being done here in Illinois is so important and exciting,” explained NELP senior researcher and policy analyst Irene Tung.
Proposals to enact just cause laws are widely popular, with a recent poll finding that 67 percent of likely voters support the idea.
“At-will isn’t a law anyone voted for, it was just made up by judges in the 19th century,” Richman said. “Let’s actually have a vote on this. Let’s put this to the people.”
Traditionally, U.S. employers only have to follow just cause rules in workplaces governed by union contracts, but only 11 percent of the national workforce is currently unionized. Several unions have joined the Stable Jobs Now coalition, including the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare, SEIU Local 73, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, Cook County College Teachers Union, and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.
Coalition organizers say they are also in communication with the Illinois AFL-CIO. The state labor federation supported a similar wrongful discharge bill in 2017, but so far has not endorsed the Secure Jobs Act and did not respond to In These Times’ requests for comment.
“The American labor movement has this weird, total exception to the rule that we base this right in collective bargaining,” Richman said. “It’s time to get over that. This really should just be a law. It sucks up so much time in collective bargaining. Also, workers know they will be fired for organizing a union. Let’s make it a law that you can’t be fired unless it’s for a good reason, and then we’ll get more unions.”
Importantly, the Secure Jobs Act includes a provision that would restrict bosses from using data gathered through electronic monitoring to make decisions around discipline or dismissal, instead limiting such decisions only to human-based information. The new study by NELP and Raise the Floor Alliance found that 52 percent of Illinois workers are observed, recorded, or tracked at work through various forms of surveillance technology.
Delivery driver Jesus Ruelas told In These Times that he was fired by Amazon last year partly because he had a low score on Mentor, an app he said the company uses to monitor “how fast we’re driving, if we’re reversing, how fast we’re turning, how hard we’re braking, and whether we’re putting a seatbelt on.”
Amazon drivers nationwide complain that Mentor often provides glitchy, inaccurate, or misleading data that doesn’t take real-world conditions into account — leading to unfair discipline and discharge.
“The app just records what you do, it’s not advanced enough to know if you’re doing it for a reason. If you brake on a slick road, it records that as a negative thing,” Ruelas said. “Amazon will let you go for anything they can think of.”
The proposed legislation is certain to face opposition from employer groups, but since 2019, the Illinois General Assembly has managed to pass a host of progressive reforms, including a $15-an-hour minimum wage, legalization of recreational marijuana and abolition of cash bail.
“At its core, this is a racial justice and economic justice issue that can no longer be ignored,” said State Sen. Celina Villanueva, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Illinois Senate. “We have to catch up with the rest of the world and end this perverse and broken system that seeks to subjugate workers.”
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.