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Understanding the Difference Between “At-Will” and “Right to Work”

April 7, 2022

Laura L. Rubenstein

Even the most sophisticated of business leaders sometimes misunderstand and misuse terms the terms “at-will” and “right-to-work” when referring to a person’s employment status. These terms have entirely different meanings.


An “at-will” employment relationship is one where the either the employer or the employee has the right to terminate their relationship at any time and for any reason, with or without cause. This doctrine also allows employers to freely increase or decrease wages, modify benefits, or change employment terms and conditions. Almost all states have adopted the at-will doctrine.

An at-will doctrine is overridden when an employment agreement is executed between the parties which designates terms of employment, including length of employment, and indicates that the employee can only be terminated for certain reasons. Collective bargaining agreements between a union and a company also typically override an employer’s at-will employment rights.


Many people incorrectly believe that the term “right-to-work” means an individual has the right to a job or implies workers’ protections. The reality is that right-to-work refers to whether a union and employer can compel employees in a designated bargaining unit to pay union dues to the union.

The federal National Labor Relation Act (NLRA) permits unions and employers to require all employees in a bargaining unit to pay dues to the union, regardless of whether they choose to avail themselves of union membership.

To counter the authority, about half the states in the U.S. have passed what are referred to as “right to work” employment laws. This means that employers and unions are prohibited from compelling employees to pay union dues if the employees chooses not to do so. Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania have not passed this law. In other words, union members in these states are required to pay union dues if their position falls within a bargaining unit.

For questions about these laws or other employment questions related to your workforce, please contact Laura Rubenstein at LRubenstein@RKWlawgroup.com.

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