Just Cause, Not Just Because: a Pro-Worker Reform for the Employment Landscape

The at-will doctrine permits employers to terminate employees at any time for any reason—or no reason at all—so long as it is not an illegal one. This creates a significant power imbalance between employers and employees, chills employee speech regarding unsafe or unlawful workplace conduct, and leaves employees vulnerable to arbitrary and unjust dismissals. The current system disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and women workers, who are often segregated into low-wage jobs where the at-will presumption applies. As evidenced by recent legislative efforts around the country, and especially in light of COVID-19, there is growing momentum in states and localities to replace the at-will doctrine with a just cause standard. By contrast, a just cause standard requires employers to articulate a bona fide reason for dismissal, use a system of progressive discipline, and provide written notice to employees. Not only is the just cause standard consistent with due process principles of adequate notice and fair process, it also seeks to address racial and gender inequities in the workplace and beyond.

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