Information on Ohio's Consumer Laws from Attorney Daniel Myers, Myers Law, LLC, not legal advice
The end of the year can be bittersweet. It brings the joys of the holidays and the uncertainties involved in mass layoffs for many others. Most employees have a co-worker who likes to tell them that their bosses can or can’t do certain things–normally this involves what seems “fair” or “logical.” In Ohio, what is unfair or illogical is not necessarily illegal. You shouldn’t rely on what your co-workers tell you about your rights–unless you work at a law firm. There is a lot of misinformation out there. My hope is to clear up some of the misinformation for the holiday season.
Unless you have an employment contract or a (union) collective bargaining agreement, you have very few rights as an Ohio employee–but the ones you do have are important and powerful. It’s a good idea to know what they are, especially at a time when companies are laying off thousands of employees. Please note that not all employees have these rights–some laws apply only to employers over a certain size, employees who meet specific requirements, or employees involved in a very large reduction in force (RIF or layoff) or plant closing. You need to speak with an attorney to learn what your specific rights are.
I’ve Heard of Employment At-Will, But What Does it Mean?
In Ohio, if you do not have an employment contract for a definite term (1 year, 5 years, etc.) and are not a union member, you are generally considered an “at-will” employee. At-will employees can be hired or fired, with or without notice, for any reason or no reason at all, not matter how unfair or illogical that termination is, so long as the termination is not otherwise illegal. For example, an employer could come up to you on a Friday morning and say “I had a bad morning–my kids kept me up all night. Your name was the first one I saw on my desk this morning. Because I’m cranky, you are fired.” That’s legal. Is it a bad reason to fire someone? Sure. Is it illegal? No.
At the same time, an at-will employee has the right to quit with or without notice for any reason or no reason at all. That’s not much of a “right” in a bad economy. While it may be professional to give at least two weeks notice when resigning, it is generally not required for at-will employees.
On the other hand, if you have a contract or a collective bargaining agreement, you cannot quit or be fired unless you follow the requirements of the agreement. Otherwise, it may be a breach of contract and either you or your employer may have a legal claim for damages against the other.
Mass Layoffs (RIF’s)
If an employer is going to close their entire plant or lay off a very large portion of their workforce, they may be required to provide advanced notice to the affected employees and state government. There is a federal law, known as the WARN Act, which requires employers to warn employees of impending layoffs in some situations such as a plant closing or layoff of a large number of people within a short time frame. If the law is violated, employees may be entitled to at least their lost wages for the time the employer should have, but failed to, give warning.
In Ohio, if you meet the work requirements and wage requirements to be eligible for unemployment, you may be entitled to receive unemployment benefits from the state upon your termination. If you were an at-will employee, and were terminated in an economic lay off or without “just cause,” you may be eligible to receive unemployment. However, your employer can dispute your unemployment claim if they fired you for “just cause” or if you resigned without “just cause.” Just cause is difficult to define, but usually requires something more than an arbitrary decision like “I’m angry at my kids, you are fired;” it usually involves some sort of fault on one party. If an employee stole from a company, refuses to follow reasonable work rules, or quit for no reason, they may not be able to receive unemployment compensation. However, if an employee quits because her boss was purposely endangering her by exposing her to constant and unreasonable danger, that may be “just cause” for quitting and may entitle the employee to benefits.
If an employer has a progressive discipline policy, requiring multiple steps before terminating an employee, and does not follow that policy as it regularly does, then the terminated employee may be able to receive unemployment benefits. However, an at-will employee still does not have the right to force the employer to give any warning before firing the employee–the employee may just be able to get unemployment benefits if his employer fails to provide a warning. If you have questions about your termination, you should contact an attorney who can advise you.
Even if you are an at-will employee, you cannot be fired for certain reasons. In Ohio, you generally cannot be fired based on your race, your age (if over the age of 40), your disability, your color, your sex, your national origin, or your military status, among other things. If you are fired due to one of these illegal reasons, you may have rights against your employer to collect lost wages, be reinstated in your job, and possibly collective punitive damages. There are very strict procedures you must follow and very short time frames for you to bring your claims within. Your employer must also have a certain number of employees for these laws to protect you–each law may have a different number of employees an employer must have for the law to apply to you, some requiring there to be only four employees, others as many as fifty or more. You are not entitled to Family Medical Leave Act coverage if your employer is too small, so it’s important to speak with an attorney about what rights you do and do not have.
Additionally, if you report workplace discrimination and harassment, such as sexual, race, disability, or age discrimination or harassment, and you are treated poorly because you reported it, you may have a claim based on illegal retaliation. In any of these situations, you should immediately contact an attorney if you feel you were discriminated against or retaliated against. You may have only days, not months or years, to file a claim with the EEOC or the courts. If you miss this deadline, you may forever lose whatever rights you had.
Wage & Hour Laws
In Ohio, if you or your employer do not meet one of the exemptions in the law, your employer is required to pay you at least minimum wage, and is also required to pay you overtime at 1.5 times your normal hourly pay. If an employer violates this law, you could be entitled to receive your back wages, additional damages permitted by statute, and also attorney fees to cover your attorney costs. Again, this law only applies certain employers, not all, so it is critical to speak with an attorney about your specific situation.
Ohio’s Constitution also requires that an employer provide you with certain employment records upon your request at no cost. These records can make or break a wage & hour lawsuit in some cases, and it is important to speak with an attorney who is knowledgeable about your rights and knows how to get these documents quickly. If your employer refuses to provide them to you, you can contact a lawyer to file a court action and possibly recover attorney fees that you incur in obtaining those records.
Are There Other Rights?
There are many other laws and rights that may apply to you and affect who you can work for, whether you can solicit clients of the company if you leave, what health and pension benefits you are entitled to, and how your employer can deny you those benefits. Because of the specific nature of these laws, it is important to consult an attorney to know what your specific rights are.