Employment generally in the United States is considered to be “at will”. That means that employment may be ended by the employer or the employee at any time. There are certain restrictions, the most common of which is probably employment through a contract. An employment contract will specify the terms under which a person is employed and under what terms they may be terminated and what happens if the contract is not followed (breach of contract). Generally the law is that an employer may fire an employee for good cause, bad cause or no cause at all. If an employee is fired for no reason, generally they can draw unemployment for a period of time or until they find employment elsewhere. If an employee fails to show up for work or otherwise violates the rules then they are not able to draw unemployment compensation.There are federal rules that pertain to firing a person because of their race, age, sex or religion. In those cases if a person believes they were fired for those reasons, they must contact EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) within 180 days and get a “right to sue” letter after giving the EEOC an opportunity to investigate and resolve the situation. In Alabama, we recognize that employers have an incentive to fire a worker following an injury. If an employee is injured and then terminated, this creates a situation where a claim for “retaliatory discharge” could be made. Employers are prohibited from firing an employee for seeking to recover workers compensation benefits following an on-the-job injury. When an employee notifies the employer of an injury and is then fired, the facts are then such that a retaliatory discharge claim could be made. The injured employee does not have to file a lawsuit or do anything other than notify the employer that they were injured on the job. If, after notice of an injury, the employee is terminated, the employer may be asked to come forward with proof of a legitimate reason for terminating the employee. These can be good cases, but become difficult or unclear when the employee is placed in an “inactive” status or claims that the employer made the working conditions “intolerable”. Typically a jury determines the outcome of a retaliatory discharge claim after hearing both sides. They decide whether or not the employer’s reason is true or if the employee was fired for claiming an injury. People in general and juries specifically look at an employer’s past history for evidence that this type of termination is a pattern. If the employer has a pattern and practice of terminating employees after an injury, juries can award punitive damages to prohibit this type of conduct in the future.
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