Just Cause Job Protections: Building Racial Equity and Shifting the Power Balance Between Workers and Employers

Executive Summary

In the United States, most employers can legally fire workers without warning or explanation. This system, known as “at will” employment, can cause great harm to U.S. workers and their families when the paycheck they depend on is there one day and gone the next. By granting employers excessive control over workers’ livelihoods, at-will employment undermines workers’ ability to speak up about mistreatment and perpetuates longstanding racial inequities in the workplace and labor market. The at-will relationship creates an enormous power imbalance between workers and their employers, with far-reaching consequences in the workplace and beyond.

What happens in U.S. workplaces can have implications for the well-being of everyone in this country—as the recent pandemic has shown us—when many workers speaking up about the spread of COVID-19 on the job have faced retaliatory firings. Under the current at-will system, these workers have limited legal recourse.

A growing movement of workers and labor organizations around the country is calling for the adoption of “just cause” laws to prohibit terminations without warning or a good cause. Widely popular across the political spectrum, just-cause laws promote economic security and stability for workers and their families and protect workers from being punished or fired in retaliation for speaking up about critical workplace problems such as discrimination or health and safety violations.

In this report, we present new findings from three data sources that shed light on the harmful effects of at-will employment on workers and show broad public support for adopting just-cause protections around the country:

  • Census Job-to-Job Flows data – Our analysis of the latest U.S. Census Bureau Job-to-Job Flows data illustrates the destabilizing effects on workers and their families of losing a job, especially for Black and Latinx workers (Figure 1).
  • National workforce survey – Previously unreleased findings from an October 2020 national survey of more than 3,000 people in the U.S. workforce show the extent to which fear of employer retaliation prevents workers from reporting serious workplace concerns such as health and safety violations and sexual harassment (Figures 3, 4).
  • Polling from battleground congressional districts – Results from a new February 2021 nationwide poll of voters in battleground congressional districts show just-cause policies have strong support across political parties and demographic groups (Figures 5, 6).

The United States is unique among wealthy, industrialized nations in that employees can be fired on a whim.

In addition, we address the following questions:

How do at-will firings affect workers’ lives and the workplace environment?

  • Half of all U.S. workers – Unfair or arbitrary firings are common in the United States, affecting almost one in two workers at some point in their lives. Abrupt terminations can be devastating for workers and their families because many households have little savings or wealth to fall back on.
  • Fear in workers and pressure to accept poor job conditions – The ability of employers to upend the lives of their employees also creates a climate of fear in the workplace, discouraging workers from speaking up about mistreatment or poor working conditions. More than one-fifth—22 percent—of respondents said that fear of retaliation would prevent them from either speaking up about unsafe or unhealthy working conditions or refusing to work in those conditions (Figure 4). Thirty-one percent of women say that fear of retaliation might prevent them from reporting workplace sexual harassment.

How do at-will firings perpetuate systemic racism against Black and Latinx workers?

  • More hardship after job loss – Black and Latinx workers are more likely than white workers to face an extended period of unemployment after a job separation, even when the economy is strong. This disparity in extended unemployment between racial groups grows during recessions (Figure 1). Past and continuing racial and economic injustice in the United States means that Black and Latinx workers have less household savings or family wealth to fall back on during periods of extended unemployment, making the impact of joblessness more severe.
  • Less power in the workplace – In the workplace, the at-will system amplifies the power imbalance between employers and individual workers. This is to the detriment of all workers, but especially those who have the least power in the labor market and are most often segregated in dangerous and lower-paying jobs—such as Black and Latinx workers.
  • Limited recourse for discrimination – The kinds of unfair decision-making and abusive practices that at-will employment invites can exacerbate discrimination in discipline and firings. However, the narrow definition for what qualifies as illegal racial discrimination under existing law is insufficient to address many kinds of race-driven unfair treatment that workers of color face on the job.
  • Retaliation as barrier to rights enforcement – Workers of color are more likely than white workers to toil under substandard conditions—facing higher rates of wage theft and workplace health and safety violations, for example. But fear of retaliation—which at-will employment heightens—chills Black and Latinx workers in particular from speaking up about such problems (Figure 4).

What support exists for the adoption of just-cause policies?

  • Broad public consensus – Just-cause policies are broadly supported by voters across political parties and demographic groups. In a February 2021 poll, 71 percent of voters in battleground congressional districts—including 67 percent of Republican voters—supported the adoption of just-cause laws.
  • Growing movement – For the first time in decades, in response to workers organizing on this issue, there is new momentum to replace at-will employment with just-cause protections. Philadelphia and New York City have recently enacted just-cause legislation for targeted industries. Last month, Illinois lawmakers—in partnership with worker centers and their allies—introduced The Secure Jobs Act, a just-cause bill that would extend protections to all workers in the state. And a broad coalition of groups is urging President Biden to order just-cause protections for employees of federal contractors.

What components should just-cause policies include?

We recommend that lawmakers adopt just-cause policies that ensure that employers:

  • Demonstrate a good reason for discharge, such as job performance or economic hardship;
  • Give employees fair warning, adequate training, and a chance to improve before firing them;
  • Apply disciplinary policies fairly and consistently; and
  • Provide severance pay for all discharged workers.

We need a national just-cause policy, as well as state and local laws, to guarantee workers the job stability and economic security they deserve and ensure that they feel safe speaking up about mistreatment on the job.


Download the report to read more. 

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About the Authors

Jared Odessky

Paul K. Sonn

Areas of expertise:
  • Living Wage & Minimum Wage

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