Pennsylvania, like many states, is an at-will employment state, meaning that both the employer and the employee may terminate the employment relationship for any reason and at any time without advance notice. Generally speaking, an employer does not have to have a reason to terminate the employment relationship. In short, at-will employment is not guaranteed.
There are several exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. An employee cannot be fired for discriminatory reasons or for retaliatory reasons. Also, if an employee has an employment contract, the employee may not be fired in violation of that contract. Some contracts provide that an employee may only be terminated for specific causes.
Here are some examples of exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine:
- an employee may not be fired because of his or her sex, religious beliefs, race, age or disability; employment may not be terminated because an employee filed a worker’s compensation claim;
- an employee may not be fired for making a wage claim under the Fair Labor Standard Act or state wage laws;
- an employee may not be terminated for engaging in union activities;
- employment may not be terminated if an employee makes a claim to a federal or state agency to report violations by the employer (whistleblower laws);
- employment may not be terminated where an employee takes family or child-care leave;
- finally, an employee may not be fired if the employment termination would violate a significant public policy. This exception is potentially broad and would include things like refusing to engage in illegal activity on behalf of the employer, exercising voting rights, reporting illegal activity and similar matters.
The best way to think about the at-will employment doctrine is this: you can be fired for any reason, you can be fired for no reason, but you cannot be fired for an illegal or discriminatory reason.