In general, employers can fire employees for almost any reason or for no reason at all. This is called at-will employment. You can leave your job at will, and your employer can fire you at will. The employer’s right to fire you, however, is limited. For example, your employer cannot fire you for a discriminatory reason or in retaliation for exercising your rights under federal law.
Getting your final paycheck
After you leave your job, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, you still need to get paid for the work you did before you left. At what time you get that final paycheck depends on state law. Many states distinguish between terminated employees and quitting employees, entitling fired employees to a final paycheck sooner than resigning employees. The time period for getting a final paycheck can vary anywhere from immediately upon termination to the next regular payday.
If you have an employment contract that governs when your employer can fire you, you are not an at-will employee. If your employer fires you in violation of the contract, you may be able to sue your employer for breach of contract.
Limitations on at-will employment
There are also other limitations on at-will employment not specifically spelled out in federal law. In some rare circumstances, a termination can violate public policy. This occurs if your employer fires you for doing something generally considered to be in the public interest, such as preventing abuse in a nursing home.
Additionally, some employees are protected under whistleblower statutes, which protect employees who complain about an employer’s illegal activities. Whistleblower laws are usually based on state law, though a few federal statutes have whistleblower protections as well.
While it won’t help you get your job back, if an employer spreads false information about you in relation to your termination, you may have a defamation claim. The law of defamation is designed to protect your reputation and punish employers who spread reputation-damaging information.
If you are part of a plant closing or a mass layoff, there are special rules that apply to your situation.