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Labor & Employment FAQ for Employers

July 13, 2012

What is Employment At-Will?

Pennsylvania is an employment at-will state, which means that either party (the employer or the employee) can end the employment relationship at any time for any reason. Just as employees are free to quit their job, employers are free to fire workers as long as it is not for an illegal reason. An exception to this is if there is a contract of employment with the employee that changes at-will status.

So when is it illegal to harass or fire an employee?

There are a number of different kinds of claims a terminated employee can try to raise against an employer. These kinds of claims include breach of express or implied contracts, wrongful termination in breach of public policy, and a large number of potential claims based on alleged violations of federal and state statutes as well as local ordinances and executive orders which provide exception to the at-will presumption by placing limitations on when employees can be terminated or otherwise adversely treated. These include but are not limited to:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — applies to employers with 50 or more employees
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — applies to employers with 15 or more employees
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) – applies to employers with 15 or more employees
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) – applies to employers with 20 or more employees
  • The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHEA) — applies to employers with 4 or more employees
  • The Pittsburgh City Code — applies to all employers with 5 or more employees within the City of Pittsburgh

When am I liable for harassment as an employer?

Harassment can be illegal if it is based upon a legally protected characteristic such as sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age (over 40), or disability. In the City of Pittsburgh, sexual orientation and familial status are also protected classes. Retaliation based on participation or opposition to unlawful employment practices can also lead to a discrimination case.

Whether an employer will be held liable for harassment in its workplace depends upon three things:

  • Who committed the harassment,
  • Whether the harassment resulted in a tangible employment action, and
  • The employer’s response to the conduct.

Depending on the circumstances, employers may avoid liability for harassment by establishing a proper policy prohibiting all forms of unlawful harassment and providing proper channels for employees to report suspected harassment. All employers should have in place proper policies though which employees can report any instances of alleged illegal harassment.

What can I do to prevent harassment claims?

To prevent harassment claims, with the assistance of your legal counsel or human resources professional, you should implement and disseminate a policy describing and forbidding all forms of unlawful harassment and providing a proper complaint mechanism. It is recommended that you train relevant personnel on how to deal with inappropriate behavior. If you learn that an employee is being harassed, you should take steps to address the harassment immediately. You should also take steps to assure that employees who use a policy do not become victims of retaliation.

What can an employee recover in a claim?

Depending on the kind of claim, an employer is at risk for: back pay, front pay or reinstatement, compensatory damages (including pain and suffering), punitive damages, declaratory relief and/or attorney’s fees.

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