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Two Legal Terms That Every Employee and Employer Should Understand: “At-Will” and “Right to Work”

July 19, 2023

Stephen Kaufman

“At will” employment and “right to work”  laws are often confused with one another. They are very different. “At will” employment means that an employee can quit or be fired at any time without notice. Most states have  exceptions to  “at will” employment, as does the federal government. Although state laws differ, exceptions include a written contract provision that requires notice to be fired or quit. For example: “Employer or Employee may terminate this contract at any time, for any reason or no reason, by providing the other party 30 days’ written notice”. Another common exception precludes firing an employee for a discriminatory reason, like on account of race, religion or gender.

Unlike “at will” employment laws, "right to work" laws are not about firing employees. Instead, they prohibit unions from requiring employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment. In other words, employees in "right to work" states can work for a unionized employer without having to join the union or pay union dues, even if they are represented by a union and benefit from collective bargaining. Such employees are called “free riders” because they get union benefits for free.

The name “right to work" misleadingly suggests that these laws protect workers. Although proponents of right to work laws may disagree, in reality, their purpose and effect is to weaken unions by denying them the dues they need to properly function, impairing their ability to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Multiple studies show that workers in "right to work" states have lower wages and receive fewer benefits than workers in states without these laws. Currently, more than half the states have right to work laws, including Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. Like almost all the Northeast, Maryland is an “at will” but not a right to work state.

This article is a general overview, not legal advice. If you have questions about the legality of firing an employee or unionization, you should consult a lawyer. Do not rely upon this article.

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