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Which States Are At-Will Employment States?
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Workforce Management

Which States Are At-Will Employment States?

One Minute Takeaway

  • At-will is the principle that an employer can terminate employment for any reason, at any time provided that is not illegal
  • The only state that is not an at-will employment state is Montana
  • Almost every state has exceptions or exemptions for at-will employment

Unlike most nations, the US labor law heavily favors employers. Employment is generally ‘at will’, and can therefore be terminated at any time. There is usually no burden on employers to prove “just cause”—they simply have to avoid discriminatory or illegal action. However, many states do apply important exemptions.

What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

Employment at-will is the principle that an employer can terminate employment for any reason, at any time provided that is not illegal. Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences. All states have some form of employment at-will although mostly with some restrictions—notably Montana, in line with European nations, only allows this during an initial 12-month probation period.

To visualize these differences, we’ve created a map detailing at-will employment states and states with related laws across the US.

employment laws across the US

Here is the list of at-will employment states combined with states that allow public policy exceptions, covenants of good faith and implied employment contract exceptions broken down in a helpful table.

State Public Policy ExemptionCovenant of Good FaithImplied Contract Exception
Alabama NoYesYes
Alaska YesYesYes
Arizona YesYesYes
Arkansas YesYesYes
California YesYesYes
Colorado YesYesYes
Connecticut YesYesYes
Delaware YesYesNo
Florida NoNoNo
Georgia NoNoNo
Hawaii YesYesYes
Idaho YesYesYes
Illinois YesYesYes
Indiana YesYesNo
Iowa YesYesYes
Kansas YesYesYes
Kentucky YesYesYes
Louisiana NoNoNo
Maine NoNoYes
Maryland YesYesYes
Massachusetts YesYesNo
Michigan YesYesYes
Minnesota YesYesYes
Mississippi YesYesYes
Missouri YesYesNo
Montana* YesYesNo
Nebraska NoYesYes
Nevada YesYesYes
New Hampshire YesYesYes
New Jersey YesYesYes
New Mexico YesYesYes
New York NoNoYes
North Carolina YesYesNo
North Dakota YesYesYes
Ohio YesYesYes
Oklahoma YesYesYes
Oregon YesYesYes
Pennsylvania YesYesNo
Rhode Island NoNoNo
South Carolina YesYesYes
South Dakota YesYesYes
Tennessee YesYesYes
Texas YesYesNo
Utah YesYesYes
Vermont YesYesYes
Virginia YesYesNo
Washington YesYesYes
West Virginia YesYesYes
Wisconsin YesYesYes
Wyoming YesYesYes

* Employment at will only applies during 6-month probation period.

Now let’s explain what that means for businesses…

What are the Advantages of Employment At-Will?

In theory, at-will employment offers freedom and flexibility to both employers and employees. It gives employers the financial security to reduce labor costs fast. It also means that employees can choose to leave a job they dislike without having to work any notice period. However, critics claim that at-will employment leads to job insecurity, disadvantaging workers.

Can Terminated At-Will Employees Collect Unemployment?

State law determines who is eligible for unemployment benefits, how much each individual will receive and for how long they will receive it. And, every case is unique. However, many states often allow at-will employees who have been terminated through no fault of their own to qualify for unemployment benefits. Employers who do terminate at-will employees should keep in mind that unemployment claims could trigger an increase in unemployment insurance taxes.

Are There Any Exceptions to At-Will Employment?

Yes. There are exemptions and exceptions.  Here are the exemptions to employment at-will:

  • Public Policy Exemption
    The majority of states apply some form of public policy exemption, preventing the termination of an employment relationship if this would violate public policy. This means that an employee can’t be fired for refusing to do something that would go against state law, for reporting a violation of the law or when an employee has acted in the greater good of the public, like performing jury duty.
  • Covenant of Good Faith
    Many states also maintain a further exception: requiring employers act in good faith. For instance, the termination of an employee’s employment relationship immediately before they were due to receive a large commission could be interpreted as being in bad faith. Similarly, an employer cannot give false reasons for an employee’s termination.

    This covenant could also be violated in a case where an employee was terminated after a long time where they had been given positive performance reviews and led to believe that their job was secure—in order to prove that the termination had not be conducted in bad faith, employer’s might be expected to show “just cause”.

  • Implied Contract Exemption
    A further common exemption is for cases when a contract, employee handbook or other employer behavior implies that an employee will only be terminated for “just cause”—even when employees have signed contracts stating that their employment is at-will. Formal collective bargaining agreements are generally negotiated with high-level employees.

Additional Statutory Exceptions

While the exemptions listed above apply only in certain states, there are other circumstances in which employment at will doesn’t apply:

  • Public Sector Employees
    Typically, public-sector employees are not subject to at-will employment.
  • Unionized Jobs
    When employment contracts are the subject of union bargaining, a common demand is that employees can only be terminated for “just cause”.
  • Contract Workers
    If employees have a contract that lists a specific start and end date, there will likely be stipulations on the exact circumstances in which the contract can be terminated.
  • Discrimination
    Civil rights legislation protects employees from termination in the case of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, sex, genetic information or age.
  • Protected Employment
    Employment cannot be terminated when an employee is on job protected leave, such as that under the Family and Medical Leave Act legislation.
  • Whistleblowing
    State and federal laws protect whistleblowers against retaliation and wrongful termination.

How Paycor Helps

Keeping up with ever-changing HR laws can sometimes feel overwhelming; that’s why Paycor partners with HR leaders to help keep their businesses compliant. Paycor HR software features alerts, recommendations, reminders and updated resources you can count on. Looking for a payroll partner that does more? Discover how Paycor Compliance Solutions can help you.

Paycor is not a legal, tax, benefit, accounting or investment advisor. All communication from Paycor should be confirmed by your company’s legal, tax, benefit, accounting or investment advisor before making any decisions.

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