New Report: Just-Cause Reforms Broadly Popular, Offer Solutions to Workplace Racial Inequity

Data shows need for job security protections on road to economic recovery

NATIONWIDE—A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) sheds light on the harmful effects of at-will employment, the predominant system in the U.S. under which employers can legally fire workers without warning or explanation. The report, titled ‘Just Cause’ Job Protections: Building Racial Equity and Shifting the Power Balance Between Workers and Employers, presents evidence in support of the growing movement for “just cause” laws, which prohibit terminations without warnings or good cause.

One in two U.S. workers are affected by unfair or arbitrary firings at some point in their lives, which can be devastating for workers and their families. So it’s no surprise that just-cause protections enjoy broad public support in a national workplace survey and in polling from battleground congressional districts (71% of voters), as described in the report. These protections would afford workers relief from the types of mistreatment that many U.S. workers face, including problems that Amazon employees have identified. Those problems include retaliation for raising health and safety concerns, and opaque performance and disciplinary policies, like the retail giant’s “time off task” tracking and surveillance system, that leave workers feeling like they’re on thin ice.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the harms of unjust firings, but by no means are these practices limited to this crisis,” said NELP Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst Irene Tung, one of the report’s co-authors. “Black and brown workers are hurt the most by the at-will system. Adopting just-cause protections is a key step for creating more racially just workplaces,” said Tung.

The report’s findings include the following: 

  1. Black and Latinx workers are harmed the most by the at-will system. They have less household wealth to fall back on when out of work and are more likely than white workers to face an extended period of unemployment after losing a job, even when the economy is strong. This disparity in extended unemployment between racial groups grows during recessions.
  2. It promotes poor and dangerous workplace conditions. More than one in five workers say that fear of retaliation under the at-will system prevents them from speaking up about unsafe or unhealthy working conditions or objecting to working under those conditions.
  3. The at-will employment system chills workers from speaking up about racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and other mistreatment at work.
  4. Just-cause policies are broadly popular with voters. 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.

In conjunction with the report release, worker leaders, elected officials, and policy advocates are convening to discuss this emerging movement for job security and workplace fairness. The panel discussion is on Thursday, May 6 from 2-3PM EST. The public can register to watch the event here.

Since 2019, fast-food workers in New York, parking attendants in Philadelphia, and journalists at many major publications have all fought for and won new just-cause employment protections. 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 worker advocates are urging President Biden to order just-cause protections and other labor standards for employees of federal contractors.

“The dislocation and hardship of the pandemic is accelerating this worker-driven movement for security and fair treatment in the workplace,” said Paul Sonn, NELP’s state policy program director and one of the report’s co-authors. “We expect to see more cities and states introducing just-cause proposals in the coming year.”

With momentum growing for just-cause protections, NELP’s new report provides background on this emerging movement drawn from Census data and workplace and battleground polling. The report finds that transitioning to a just-cause system would promote job stability by providing clear standards to end unjust and arbitrary firings, which hurt both workers and communities and silence workers from speaking up about mistreatment.

“By passing just-cause legislation requiring employers to substantiate terminations, lawmakers can give workers the economic security they need and deserve and help advance our country towards greater racial justice,” says the report.

The report recommends that just-cause legislation should 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;
  • Restrict the use of data from electronic monitoring and surveillance in employee discipline and discharge; and
  • Provide severance pay for all discharged workers.

Read the full report here:

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

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