The American Workplace 1: At-will Employment Continued

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Over the next few weeks, I will be addressing issues having to do with the American workplace. Because work is such a vital part of most Americans’ lives, and because Americans spend so much of their time in the workplace, it is an issue of social justice: how people are treated, and how workplace practices, ethics and laws relate to our ongoing theme of the common good.  office-word-cloud-871299598692FtS[1]

In this post, I will expand on my earlier post on at-will employment. My purpose is not to bash employers, or our country, but to paint a realistic picture of American workplaces that affect millions of us, to question the status quo, and to offer some constructive alternatives.

A sobering fact is that many Americans do not even know about at-will employment – and how little job security they have – until they or someone close to them are fired outright. It seems to be a well-guarded secret in our great country that a worker (competent or not), unless s/he is tenured or covered by a contract, can lose his/her livelihood with no notice and for no reason. In stark contrast, almost all other nations in the world provide their workers with much greater security; sudden job loss is almost unheard of, even in many second-world countries. In the advanced nations that we consider to be our peers, employment contracts are required by law for almost all workers. In the US, only Montana has done away with at-will.

Examples of European practices:

  • Belgium and Germany: Government-required contracts per EU law.
  • Sweden: Employment Protection Act; contracts are required, and notice is required before termination.
  • Denmark: Most workers are covered by the Danish Act on Employment Contracts.

Obviously European workers periodically lose their jobs. But, as Steven Hill notes (Europe’s Promise 90-91), “If a worker loses her or his job, [European nations] have well-funded job training centers to retrain the worker, and job placement services that try matching the worker’s new skills with suitable employment.” European workers are also provided with generous unemployment benefits, with the philosophy that individuals and families need to live and thrive, and the economy is strengthened when unemployed workers can continue to contribute to the tax base and purchase goods and services.

Also unbeknownst to most Americans, there is already a possible legislative alternative to at-will (although it has generally died on the vine). In the late 1980s, the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws of the US met systematically for several years and crafted the Model Employment Termination Act (META); it was finalized in 1991. Click here to read a summary.

Although the Commissioners urged enactment of META in all states, none has done so in all these years. How many millions of individuals and families have been adversely affected by at-will since 1991? Why do Americans accept our astounding absence of job security, especially in the current economy?

Most of the objections that I have seen boil down to money: doing away with at-will and providing job security to Americans, through legislation, is viewed as too costly. The actual facts belie this, however: research in Montana has shown that doing away with at-will is good for business, not bad.  And we have the evidence from Europe: not only are many of the countries that provide job security highly prosperous, they also often produce the happiest citizens in the world, as we noted previously.

I know from my own experience in the workplace, even in academic institutions, which are supposed to be “liberal,” fair and open-minded, speaking up about job security and fairness is extremely risky. So it is probably too much to ask most workers to broach this subject directly with their employers. There are other things that concerned American workers and their allies can do:

  • Educate yourself about at-will and META then educate your friends and colleagues.
  • Encourage media outlets to run stories about the down side of at-will and the existence of META and other legislation that would promote job security.
  • Write to your congressional representative/s about the issue.
  • Support local, state and national initiatives to eradicate at-will and provide Americans with enhanced job security.
  • Work with non-profit organizations that are concerned with issues of poverty and social justice to include job security as part of their mission.
  • Encourage companies with which you do business to provide job security to their employees at all levels.

If the vast majority of American workers had job security (preferably also linked with a living wage – a topic for another day), would that not contribute tremendously to the common good? Poverty would be reduced, families would be stronger, ruthless competition in some workplaces, fueled by fear of job loss, would be replaced by constructive cooperation, the tax base would be strengthened by reduced sudden terminations, and cash-strapped unemployment benefit systems would be utilized less often.

Can we imagine this kind of America?…