Adopt 'Just Cause' Job Protections Against Unfair Firings

Most U.S. workers can be fired from their job at any time and for any reason—or for no reason at all. ‘Just cause’ protections protect workers from arbitrary and unfair terminations.

A New Paradigm: Just Cause Protections

In a good-jobs economy, all workers should be protected against arbitrary and unfair terminations. Such protections are called “just cause” job protections, and they are the employment law standard in much of the rest of the world.

What Are ‘Just Cause’ Job Protections?

  • Employers are required to provide workers with fair notice of any performance issues and give workers the opportunity to address those issues before firing them.
  • Employers must provide a fair process and show a good reason for discharging a worker.
  •  Workers who are terminated are entitled to severance pay.

Most Workers in the U.S. Lack ‘Just Cause’ Job Protections

Today, most workers in the U.S. lack protections from arbitrary, abrupt, or unfair discharges. Absent having just cause provisions in a union or employment contract, workers can be fired or laid off at any time for any reason—or for no reason at all—and without any warning.

The U.S. is unique among wealthy, industrialized countries in allowing employers to fire workers abruptly, without warning or a good cause. This “at will” employment system traces its roots to post–Civil War white employer backlash after the abolition of slavery, forced labor, and debt bondage in the U.S.

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‘At Will’ System Wreaks Havoc on the Lives of Workers and Their Families

Abrupt and unfair firings can result in extreme financial hardship for workers and their families who are suddenly left with bills and rent to pay but without a paycheck or severance pay. And they hurt Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers the most, since they are more likely than white workers to face longer periods of unemployment after a job loss and have less savings or family wealth to fall back on.

‘At Will’ System Makes It Easy for Employers to Retaliate Against Workers

The at-will system also makes it easy for employers to retaliate against workers who speak up about concerns such as health and safety hazards, harassment, discrimination, and wage theft. There are laws on the books that prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who speak up and insist on their rights. But when workers can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, the laws are hard to enforce.

Proving that a discharge was retaliatory is very difficult—and all but impossible for most workers, who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to help them.

By requiring employers to show good reasons for discharges, just cause policies give workers better protection from being fired for speaking up about workplace concerns.

Workers Are Organizing to End Unfair Firings

A growing movement is calling for the adoption of just cause laws that would end unfair firings and require employers to provide advance notice, a good reason, and a fair process for any termination.

For the first time in decades, workers are organizing to replace the at-will employment system with just cause job protections.

  • Fast-food workers in New York City have been at the forefront of this movement, successfully campaigning to enact a local law prohibiting unfair and abrupt firings in their industry. Challenged in court by business lobby groups, the law has been upheld by federal district and appeals courts.
  • In 2019, parking lot workers in Philadelphia won the right to fight unfair firings with a local just cause law.
  • Journalists at publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times’ Wirecutter have won just cause protections in their union contracts.
  • Rideshare drivers in Seattle and then statewide in Washington won legislation protecting them against unfair terminations.

Now, the Secure Jobs NYC coalition is campaigning for a bill to protect all workers in New York City from unfair firings.

And, in Illinois, the Stable Jobs Now campaign is organizing support for a statewide just cause law.

How Pervasive and Harmful Are Abrupt and Unfair Firings in the U.S.?

A nationwide survey conducted in 2022 by NELP and YouGov shows how widespread abrupt and unfair firings are for U.S. workers and how harmful their effects are for workers and their families.

Among the key findings:

  • 40% of U.S. workers have been fired or let go at some point in their lives.
  • 69% of workers who have been terminated were given no reason or an unfair reason.
  • 72% of workers who’ve been fired were given no warning or chance to improve.
  • 66% of workers who were terminated received no severance pay.
  • 41% of U.S. workers have only enough savings to cover one month’s expenses if they lost their job.
  • 53% of Black workers have only enough savings to cover one month’s expenses.

The survey shows that workers’ fear of being fired causes many to accept poor working conditions.

  • 35% of U.S. workers have worked under hazardous or unhealthy conditions to avoid being fired.
  • 44% have endured verbal abuse or hostility from a supervisor to avoid being disciplined or fired.
  • 57% have worked unwanted overtime to avoid being fired.

What Key Protections Are Needed in Just Cause Laws?

The following should be among the core provisions of effective just cause legislation:

  • Require the employer to show a good reason for discharging a worker.
  • Clarify that certain reasons are protected activities and not grounds for discharge.
  • Provide fair notice to workers of performance issues and the opportunity to address them before being discharged.
  • Provide equal coverage for temp and staffing employees.
  • Protect against extreme surveillance and electronic monitoring.
  • Guarantee severance pay to all workers who are discharged.
  • Protect gig workers against “deactivation” without just cause.
  • Provide strong remedies and relief, including the right to reinstatement, money damages, and additional employer penalties.
  • Ensure that just cause protections can be enforced before judges and juries—regardless of forced arbitration requirements and class or collective action waivers.

For a full description of the key measures that should be included in effective just cause laws, read the policy recommendations in NELP’s Just Cause Survey Report.

Just Cause Job Protection Policies are Broadly Popular Across the Political Spectrum

Our 2022 national survey showed that 66% of U.S. workers support just cause policies, including:

  • 61% of Republicans
  • 66% of Democrats
  • 72% of Independents

Key Resources About 'Just Cause' Protections

Support Stable Jobs Now! 

The Stable Jobs Now coalition is organizing to end unfair firings statewide in Illinois. 

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