If you are a non-union employee in the State of Illinois and you do not have an individual employment contract, you are an “employee-at-will.” This designation means that you have the ability to quit your job at any time, without giving notice and regardless of the desires or concerns of your employer.  For a small group of people, this status provides a tremendous sense of freedom.  (As musician Todd Snider once sang, “I was looking for a job when I found this one.”).  However, this ability to leave your job is counter-balanced, (most would say outweighed), by the fact that your employer can terminate you at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, regardless of whether the decision is “fair.”  As a practical matter for most people, being an employee-at-will provides the boss with a great deal of leverage in the employment relationship.

It is important to know that there are exceptions to this rule, however.   For example, if you DO have an individual employment agreement, or are a member of a collective bargaining unit with a labor contract, those documents may provide you with substantial protections of your benefits, your pay, your assignments, and your job itself.  There are also a number of state and federal statutes, as well as municipal ordinances, that protect you from employment discrimination.  It is important to note that employees are protected only from illegal discrimination—in Illinois, employers are allowed to treat people differently, just not for illegal purposes or based upon the employee’s membership in a legally protected category of persons, such as race, age, religion, disability or place of national origin.

In addition, employees in our state are also protected from being retaliated against in the workplace if they have attempted to exercise their rights under statutes such as the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. You may also be protected by statute or by common law if you are discharged from employment as a result of your attempts to ensure that your employer complies with clearly established public policies, which may be set out under statutes like the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, (OSHA), or the Illinois Criminal Code.

Finally, even if your termination from employment is legal, you may have rights to unemployment compensation, or to other benefits that are protected by law.  In short, although it can be tough to be an employee in our state, and although it is not necessarily illegal in Illinois to unfairly fire someone, there ARE legal protections for the terminated employee in some circumstances, and your termination may create a cause of action for you under law.  It is almost always worthwhile to discuss the facts and circumstances of your termination with an experienced employment attorney, in order to learn the options available to you.

Thomas Polacek has practiced in the area of employment law for McNamara Phelan McSteen, LLC for over twenty years. He has represented both employees and employers in Illinois and Missouri, as well as in Federal District Court.  He prides himself on keeping his clients well-informed throughout the litigation process. 

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