Pennsylvania, like most others, is an at-will employment state. This means that, generally speaking, an employer, “may discharge an employee with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract.” See Shick v. Shirey, 726 A.2d 1231 (Pa. 1998) (quoting Henry v. Pittsburg & Lake Erie Railroad Company, 21 A. 157 (Pa. 1891)). Therefore, your typical employee has no protection against termination. For example, an employer can legally fire you because he discovers that your root for the Phillies and he is a Mets fan. In more likely scenarios, the employer can fire you because she believes your work is sub-par or the employer wants downsize, regardless of the truth of this perceptions by the employer. As a result, under most circumstances, you cannot sue your employer for wrongful termination. See Stumpp v. Stroudsburg Municipal Authority, 658 A.2d. 333, 335 (Pa. 1995).
As with most rules, however, there are limited exceptions and therefore circumstances when an employer cannot terminate an at-will employee. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained that “The employer’s privilege to dismiss an employee with or without cause is not absolute, however, and may be qualified by the dictates of public policy.” See Shick. Examples of these exceptions include retaliatory firing for filing a Workers Compensation or Unemployment claim. Exceptions also include retaliatory firing for filing a complaint with OSHA or the Pennsylvania Human Resources Commission (PHRC). An employee cannot be fired because of jury duty. The most commonly known exception is a termination based on impermissible discrimination, for example, based on race or age. Other exceptions may exist if the reason is against public policy and, therefore, if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated from your employment for a reason contrary to public policy, you should immediately contact an attorney for an evaluation of the specific facts of your case. While rare (relatively speaking), you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination and, if a viable claim exists, you will likely need to act quickly to protect your interests.
That said, what do you need to know? Prior to starting employment, when possible, consider trying to secure an employment contract that explicitly provides protections against at-will termination and defines your benefits. After employment, if terminated, consult with an attorney. As discussed above, you may have a claim for wrongful termination. If not, you will likely have a claim for Unemployment Compensation benefits, which is the trade off in Pennsylvania for at-will employment. Unless you were fired for “cause,” you will be entitled to UC benefits for a period after termination. Typically you can file for the benefits on your own (the instructions for filing can be found here: http://www.uc.pa.gov/portal/server.pt/community/filing_instructions/20595), but if your claim is denied and you need to appeal, I strongly recommend hiring an attorney. For most, these benefits will be your livelihood until you secure new employment.
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