Almost every employee who ever has been fired believes he or she has been wrongfully terminated. The good news for most employers is that in Maryland, it is very hard for an employee to win a lawsuit for something called “wrongful discharge.” Since Maryland is an at-will state, employees who want to file a lawsuit against their employers either must prove unlawful discrimination, or that the company fired them in violation of some declared public policy of the State of Maryland (such as refusing to engage in illegal activity). That’s usually hard for employees to do.
The bad news for employers is that there is another avenue that employees can pursue that they are beginning to learn about and which poses a much greater risk to employers. Under Federal law, employees may get together to improve their wages or other conditions of their employment. Something as simple as two employees talking about how much they are paid is legally protected. The law calls this the right to engage in “concerted activity.”
Any employer who interferes with that right can be in big trouble. For example, many employers believe that how much money their employees make is confidential information. Some of these employers even have rules that prohibit employees from sharing that information with others, rules that they proudly point to in their employee handbooks. Beware. The law says that employees have a legally-protected right under the National Labor Relations Act to discuss their wages and the conditions of their employment. Any interference with those rights, for example, by imposing discipline or by terminating employment, can be a violation of an employee’s rights.
Employees who believe that their right to engage in “concerted activity” has been violated may file an “unfair labor practice” charge with the National Labor Relations Board. Don’t think that the NLRB only deals with unions. More and more, the NLRB is enforcing laws against employers who are not unionized. And if a company has fired an employee for engaging in concerted activity – such as complaining to management on behalf of themselves and others about work policies – the NLRB can be ruthless in enforcing these rules. An employer can be forced to reinstate the employee, pay the employee back pay, post a notice admitting to violations of federal law, and even mail these notices to the company’s other employees.
In short, it is essential that employers know when they are permitted to fire employees and when they may not. A quick call to your workplace lawyer before firing employees can save a lot of time and money from hidden legal land mines like this one.