Colorado employees often find themselves fired, terminated, let go, laid off, etc. for reasons that may not have anything to do with violating workplace rules or poor job performance. An employee in that position reasonably questions whether the reason he or she was fired was wrongful or violated their Colorado employee rights. Under Colorado employment law employees who work under at-will employment can be fired for no reason at all. Employers can terminate employees without a job-related reason or on the basis of bad information or even a bad reason. The employer’s power to fire employees is not unlimited, however. There are many reasons under federal and Colorado employment law why an employer may not fire an employee even in an at-will employment relationship. If you believe you may have been fired for an unlawful reason then you may have a claim for wrongful termination and you should talk to Denver employment lawyers right away about your potential claims.
This post will be a series of posts regarding wrongful termination in Colorado.
What does it mean for an employer to fire for no reason in Colorado?
In most cases employers do not randomly terminate employees without a particular reason. It is expensive to find, hire and train employees. Every employee fired is a lost investment of those resources so employers typically do not casually fire employees. That does not mean every employer termination decision is rational or based on a thorough investigation. Colorado employers can fire you for no reason even if it is not a financially smart decision. Employers sometimes fire workers for extremely stupid reasons or for good reasons but on the basis of bad information or insufficient investigation. Unfortunately federal and Colorado employment law allow employers to make decisions to fire employees without any minimum explanation, reason, or investigation.
The basis for an employer’s power to fire you for no reason in Colorado comes from the at-will employment relationship. Let’s talk about what that means under federal and Colorado employment law.
What is at-will employment under federal and Colorado employment law?
In this country employment relationships in all states but Montana are by default at-will employment. At-will employment means the employment relationship exists at the will of both parties. In other words, the employment relationship lasts as long as both the employer and employee agree to continue it. Either party can terminate the relationship without consequence or permission of the other party. Over time federal and Colorado labor and employment law created exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine discussed below but the default assumption is that unless an exception exists or the parties have created a different relationship then the employment relationship is at-will.
Federal and Colorado law creates at-will employment under the legal fiction that employer and employee have equal bargaining power when creating an employment relationship. Anybody who has ever worked a job knows that is pure fiction. Employees need their jobs to pay bills and live while employers can easily fire an employee and either hire somebody new or assign the terminated employee’s work to other employees. Nevertheless, the at-will employment doctrine allows employers to fire for no reason any employee who works under this type of relationship.
Employment relationships that are not at-will employment in Colorado
An employee does not have to work under the at-will employment doctrine. Contractual employment and bargained employment agreements are not at-will employment because they create employment relationships that cannot be terminated on the whim of either party.
Employees may work under contracts that create many different conditions that regulate how an employer or employee can terminate the relationship. These can be term contracts, such as employment for one year, or contracts without a specific length. Employment contracts often include provisions describing what reasons an employer can terminate the relationship or set standards for job performance that an employee must fail to meet to be fired. Under these contracts an employee cannot be fired for no reason.
Employees can also work under collective bargaining agreements. These agreements typically exist in union workplaces in which the employees work under one agreement that covers the employment of many workers. Collective bargaining agreements can lay out specific procedures to fire an employee and reasons why an employee can be fired. CBAs are not just creations of contract law. They are also creatures of federal and Colorado labor law which create additional protections around union participation and require employers to follow procedures that inject some degree of fairness into termination decisions.
What is wrongful termination in Colorado–Colorado labor laws and termination
Exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine exist in federal and Colorado labor and employment law as statutory and common law creations. That means either a statute passed by the federal or state legislature explicitly prohibit certain reasons why an employee can be fired or courts created specific reasons why the constitution or other laws do not allow an employer to fire you. There are many exceptions under federal and Colorado law–too many to list out entirely here–but some common ones include:
- Joining or encouraging others to join a union in the workplace;
- Discussing pay and workplace conditions with coworkers;
- Unlawful forms of employment discrimination;
- Complaining about employment discrimination in the workplace;
- Requesting or taking FMLA leave;
- Complaining about unpaid wages, failures to pay minimum wage or overtime pay;
- Reporting a workplace safety issue to OSHA or other government safety agency;
- Off-duty activities protected by Colorado law;
- Exercising rights under an employer’s ERISA benefit plan.
These and other exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine commonly include extremely precise rules to apply so if you believe your employer fired you for an unlawful reason then you should contact Denver employment lawyers right away to discuss your situation and see if you have a claim.
Wrongful termination in Colorado can also arise if you work under a contract or collective bargaining agreement and the employer terminates you in violation of the terms of the contract. These claims are different from wrongful termination when an employee is fired in violation of a statute or common law exception to at-will employment because they are contractual claims. You should also contact a Denver employment lawyer to discuss a claim for wrongful termination for violating a contract or CBA.
If an employer fires you for no reason or for a reason not prohibited by law or contract then your employer likely acted legally and you may not have a claim for wrongful termination in Colorado. You may still have a claim for unemployment benefits and can file for unemployment even if you do not have other legal recourse.
In the next post on wrongful termination in Colorado we will delve further into some of the common unlawful acts that make up a wrongful termination lawsuit in Colorado.