It’s Time for At-Will Employment to Go

New Roosevelt report makes the case for replacing at-will employment to strengthen workers’ economic security and ability to exercise workplace rights

Across the vast majority of private-sector jobs, “at-will” employment has given employers free rein to discipline or fire workers for almost any reason of their choosing—and even no reason at all. This policy leaves workers vulnerable to arbitrary and unfair treatment by managers and supervisors and undermines other labor and employment protections, like civil rights laws. While at-will employment affects workers from all backgrounds, it leaves Black and brown workers already likely to experience discrimination or illegal treatment especially vulnerable. What is more, at-will employment has magnified the pernicious effects of the COVID-19 crisis, preventing workers from speaking up or reporting violations of workplace safety and health standards and thereby putting coworkers and local communities at risk of coronavirus infection. 

A new Roosevelt policy brief, Ending At-Will Employment: A Guide for Just Cause Reform, argues that ending at-will employment and adopting a just cause standardin which employers could only fire workers for well-documented cases of poor performance, misconduct, or loss of business or profitwill strengthen the economic, social, and democratic rights of US workers. Authored by Kate Andrias (professor of law at the University of Michigan) and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez (Roosevelt Fellow and associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University), the paper further contends that if properly designed, just cause reform could limit costly turnover and contribute to a safer, healthier, and more stable and productive workforce (as it has done in nearly all other rich democracies similar to the United States).

To that end, the authors lay out a range of options policymakers could use to end at-will employment in the US private-sector workforce. These include:

  • Enacting just cause termination rights for all private-sector workers through congressional legislation or including just cause provisions in federal COVID-19 relief legislation targeting essential workers. 
  • Using the procurement authority of the executive branch to introduce just cause standards for government contractors.
  • Enacting just cause legislation at the state or local level.

Insight from the authors:

“The consequences of at-will employment stretch beyond individual episodes of unfair treatment of workers and the erosion of other legal protections,” said Andrias. “At its core, at-will employment undermines democratic ideals in the workplace—and stymies efforts at making the workplace responsive and accountable to workers.”

“Passing legislation that defines the scope of workplace power in the ways preferred by most workers—whether at the local, state, or federal level—would play an immediate role in advancing public health in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” said Hertel-Fernandez. “Enacting just cause legislation would also help to address the precarious and vulnerable position of low-wage workers who have to choose between a paycheck and standing up for health safety.”

You can learn more about how the Roosevelt Institute is working to dismantle structural barriers like at-will employment in the labor market here


About the Roosevelt Institute

The Roosevelt Institute is a think tank, a student network, and the nonprofit partner to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum that, together, are learning from the past and working to redefine the future of the American economy. Focusing on corporate and public power, labor and wages, and the economics of race and gender inequality, the Roosevelt Institute unifies experts, invests in young leaders, and advances progressive policies that bring the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor into the 21st century.

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