At-will' employees retain some job protections by LawCrossing


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									CAREER CORNER                                                                                                                    1. 800. 973.1177

                                        ‘At-will’ employees retain some job protections
                                        [by Michael Kinsman]
                                        A few weeks ago, Christine L. Boone won a $3.35 million court award because a jury decided she was fired for the
                                        wrong reason.

Boyd, a blind woman, was fired in August 2003           Boone had been appointed to her job by for-
as director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Blind-          mer Gov. Tom Ridge, and the state would have        “She was an assertive, independent blind
ness and Visual Services. The state said it was         been within its right to fire her or replace her    woman and that bothered some people,” he
for her job performance.                                without offering a reason.                          said.

Yet, after a two-week trial, a jury ruled that          But officials fired her for alleged insubordi-      The jury agreed that Boone had been discrimi-
Boyd was discriminated against because of               nation. They claimed that Boone refused to          nated against because of her blindness and
her blindness.                                          enforce an office policy that reduced federal       was not fired for her job performance.
                                                        benefits to blind individuals if they won college
“Anyone who knows Christine knows that she              scholarships.                                       The at-will provision that exists in 49 states
has dedicated her life to helping the blind,”                                                               was born at the dawn of the industrial revolu-
says Arch Stokes, the Atlanta-based attor-              Later the state compounded the mistake by           tion to allow companies to reduce payroll
ney who represented her and has litigated               sending out letters that said Boone had been        when they saw fit.
employment cases in 30 states. “You cannot              doing a disservice to the blind community.
question her commitment.”                                                                                   Aside from collective-bargaining agree-
                                                        “That’s the worst thing they could have said        ments, there was little to prevent employers
Like most American workers, Boyd was an                 to someone like Christine,” says Stokes. “You       from firing workers whenever they wanted
“at-will” employee. That’s an intimidating-             have to know that when Christine got to be          until federal and state civil rights legislation
sounding phrase that means you can be fired             the right age, she told her mother she wanted       surfaced in the 960s. At that time, it became
at any time for a good reason, a bad reason or          to join the Girl Scouts. Her mother said she        illegal to discriminate against a spectrum of
no reason at all.                                       could get into a Girl Scout group for the blind,    human characteristics that people have no
                                                        but she insisted on being in the regular group.     control over.
It also means you can leave your employer for           She has spent her entire life trying to help the
another company any time you wish.                      disabled become able.”                              “Some people may get worried when they hear
                                                                                                            at-will, but I don’t see any economic value to
But it doesn’t mean that an employer can                That meant, he said, that she often looked for      firing people when you consider how much
violate state or federal civil rights to fire you.      long-term solutions to helping blind individu-      a company spends to recruit and train their
Various laws protect workers based on their             als rather than resorting to quick-fixes that       workers,” Paul says. “I think employers rightly
race, age, gender, nationality, religious af-           would build statistics to assure federal fund-      look at the at-will clause as a tool when it
filiation or disability. There are laws even to         ing of programs for the blind in Pennsylvania.      comes to contracts, but I don’t think they’re
protect corporate or governmental whistle-              Stokes said she supported Braille literacy pro-     going to fire people without a good reason
blowers.                                                grams for young blind people, realizing that        these days.”
                                                        they would stand a much greater chance of
“Ten years ago, I think the at-will clause made         obtaining an education and entering the work        © Copley News Service
workers feel vulnerable,” says Richard Paul,            force. Yet, she would have gotten as much
an employment attorney. “But they seem to               credit from the federal government if she had
have learned to accept it. I don’t think they           just given a white cane to blind individual after
like it, but they also don’t feel that employers        blind individual without regard to how they
will fire them just because they can.”                  would fit into society, he said.


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