Right to Work vs Employment at Will

This is one issue I’ve heard for a long time, many people call “employment at will” right to work. These are two very different issues and you should be familiar with both, at least at a basic level.

Right to Work

The term right to work refers to states where people have the right to work and by law are not required to join unions in order to work in any job, even if that is a unionized job. Virginia is a right to work state.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Janus v. AFSCME that all public employees (government employees) had the right to work. So now, even in states that weren’t right to work states before, government employees are not longer required to pay union dues if they aren’t union members. The reasoning was that the Supreme Court has found money to be speech and by forcing someone to pay dues to a union they don’t agree with is violating their first amendment right to freedom of speech.

Employment at Will

Although many people call it right to work, employment at will is very different. Employment at will simply means that unless there is an actual employment agreement or contract in place saying otherwise, either the employee or employer can end the employee’s employment at any time without reason. A policy that says the employee must provide two weeks’ notice is not enough, they can still walk out AND you still have to give them their last paycheck in full for all the time they worked.

That said, the reason can’t be illegal. It can’t be discriminatory or because they’re part of a protected class (race, gender, age, sexuality, religion, etc.). And it’s a good idea to keep it consistent across the board, so you wouldn’t want to fire one employee for being late 5 minutes just once while another employee is late 10-15 minutes multiple times every week and keeps their job.

Contracted Employee

If an employee has a true contract in place, then it can be different. However, it being in writing or you calling it an Employment Agreement doesn’t make it a contract. A true binding contract has to include specific things. One is called consideration which is the benefit that each party receives that they otherwise aren’t legally entitled to. In my contract with my clients, I receive payment and they receive my services. There also needs to be offer and acceptance (and a typical job offer isn’t enough on its own). There needs to be legal purpose (“I’ll pay you $1,000 if you can hold your breath longer than me” isn’t legal purpose/intent and isn’t binding), capable parties (you can’t hold the company to a contract if you get a clueless delivery guy to sign it, you know he doesn’t have the power to make decisions like that for the company), and mutual assent (the parties have to actually agree and see eye-to-eye on all the terms).

Most employees aren’t contracted and it’s rare they should be. One good example of when you would is if you will bring someone in who will be essential for a major project. Let’s say you hire an IT guy to come in and build a software program for your company. You may hire him in general or only for a specific amount of time, but because of how essential he would be to the project, you need him to stay for at least a year. If he leaves in less than a year, his contract may say he loses a huge bonus he would have received at the end of the year or may even have to pay back money already paid to him (a certain amount of money, a hiring bonus, moving expenses the company reimbursed to him, etc.).

Don’t try to make every employee a contract employee, it’s probably not right and probably wouldn’t be in your best interest if the need arises for you to terminate them. If you think you may have an exception, ask an attorney.