Employment laws across America can be complex. In fact, many people are surprised to learn that these statutes can vary by state. While there certainly are federal regulations that apply, a significant number of employment laws are created by state legislatures. At-will employment typically falls into this category. So, what does at-will employment mean in New York?

Many would view New York as a bastion of workers’ rights, and in many ways, it is. However, at-will employment in the state is often seen as a disadvantage for employees. In reality, there are actually benefits to this employment arrangement as well. If you were unfairly terminated from a position, though, those benefits don’t mean much. Here’s what you need to know.

How Does At-Will Employment Work in New York?

On the surface, at-will employment is fairly basic. It means that no one — neither employees nor employers — is required to maintain an employment relationship. Because of this, a worker can quit their job whenever they want and for any reason. This sounds beneficial at first, but it also means that employers can terminate their workers for any legal reason or for no reason at all. As such, your boss has every right to simply decide they don’t want you around any longer.

The important aspect to focus on here is that an employer can fire someone for any legal reason. There are a variety of things that companies cannot terminate their employers over. Many of these protections fall under federal law, but each individual state can provide additional protections. For instance, employers in New York cannot fire someone over their military status — even though this is not a federally protected status.

The simple fact is that there are a variety of exceptions to the ability of New York employers to fire someone for any reason. This is thanks to statutes that create protected classes. Additionally, there are various activities that are protected under state and federal law. By understanding these issues, you’ll have a better comprehension of your employment rights in New York.

What Are Legally Protected Activities?

One of the biggest protections provided to employees under New York law is the ability to engage in legally protected activities. This is the case even if the employer does not agree with such activities. In fact, these activities could be seen as a detriment to the company itself (e.g., unionizing) and still be protected under state and federal law.

Here are just a few of the legally protected activities in New York that companies cannot fire their employees over:

  • Forming or joining a union
  • Political activities outside of the workplace
  • Recreational activities outside of the workplace
  • Consumption of legal products — including cannabis — off company property
  • Reporting discrimination
  • Seeking appropriate workplace accommodations
  • Filing a workers’ compensation claim
  • Whistleblowing
  • Refusing illegal orders

This list might seem extensive, but it is far from exhaustive. An employer who fires an individual for any legally-protected activity opens themselves to potential fines, loss of licensure, litigation, and a variety of other negative outcomes. At-will employment in New York may give companies the upper hand in many ways, but it certainly does not allow them to terminate workers for illegal reasons.

Are There Exceptions to New York At-Will Employment?

The protected activities listed above touched on some of the exceptions to at-will employment in New York (e.g., political activities, whistleblowing). However, there are other exceptions outside of the protected activities realm. In many cases, these exceptions will need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. This is what makes speaking with a New York employment law attorney so important. Consider just a few of the exceptions to the law:

  • Retaliation: Firing someone or taking any negative action toward them as retaliation is illegal.
  • Union contracts: NYC union contracts typically specify the reasons an employee can be terminated.
  • Employment contracts: LIke union contracts, employment contracts may specify fireable offenses and the process for termination.
  • Discrimination: Firing someone or refusing to hire them because of their membership in a protected class is illegal.
  • Implied contracts: Even if no employment contract is signed, some actions (e.g., issuance of employee handbook) may create an implied contract.

While these exceptions may sound straightforward, it’s important to remember that gray areas always exist. Additionally, the laws that provide the exceptions can be complex. For instance, what language constitutes an implied contract? Which classes are protected, and what evidence is necessary to prove a termination was linked to discrimination? These can be tough questions, so speaking with a New York employment attorney is always a wise choice.

What Qualifies as Discrimination in New York?

At-will employment in New York will never allow discriminatory actions toward employees. It’s important to understand, however, what actually qualifies as discrimination under the law. For instance, an employer could fire someone based on their support of a certain football team. This is obviously ridiculously unethical, but it doesn’t fall under discrimination laws.

The following list features protected classes under New York’s Human Rights Law. We’ve listed these rather than federal protections since state law is more expansive in this situation:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Creed
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • National origin
  • Military status
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Predisposing genetic characteristics
  • Marital status
  • Domestic violence victim status

If you believe you’ve been fired for any of these reasons, it’s important to seek legal help immediately. There is a statute of limitations for wrongful termination and discriminatory practices in New York. Additionally, these cases can be more difficult to prove over time. An attorney can help you understand whether your firing was illegal or falls under New York at-will employment laws.

What If You’re Wrongfully Terminated?

If you’ve been wrongfully terminated — or even suspect that your dismissal was for illegal reasons — there are a variety of legal remedies available to you. However, your options will depend entirely upon the circumstances unique to your case. For instance, anyone fired due to discriminatory reasons can file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission or the New York Department of Labor. However, contract disputes often start in court instead.

Due to the complexity of employment law and the various legal remedies available, your best option may be to contact a New York employment lawyer. They can assist you with navigating this complicated journey by helping you pinpoint the best approach. No one deserves to be wrongfully terminated. If you believe you’re a victim of such actions — or even suspect so — contact our law firm today to learn more.