I JUST GOT FIRED FROM MY JOB… HELP!

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For today’s blog post I’m switching gears from auto accidents, and addressing a topic that will effect all of us in one way or another at some point in our lives: employment.  I receive countless calls and questions from people about their jobs.  Many times these calls involve someone (1) being fired from their job; or (2) being harassed at work and having to work in a miserable environment.  Today I am going to tell you what you can do if this happens to you.

First off, Michigan is an “at will” State.  That means someone can ordinarily fire you for whatever they want.  You remind them of their ex wife?  Fire away.  They don’t like your long hair?  Fired (luckily this hasn’t happened to me).  Personality conflicts?  Too bad.   But what about this “right-to-work” law we all have heard about?  Sorry.  Right-to-work was a dressed up name for a law that was passed to bust the unions in Michigan.  It has nothing to do with you keeping your job.  You generally never have a “right to work”, unless your employer promises you that in your contract.

However, there are exceptions.  You can’t fire or harass someone if they belong to a “protected class”.  This is legal jargon.  We all belong to protected classes, no matter who we are.  But in English this means you can’t discriminate against someone as stated below:

What are the protected classes in Michigan?

In all 50 states, federal law makes it illegal to discriminate based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin (e.g., Indian, Pakistani, Israeli)
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions)
  • Disability (including refusing to accommodate your disability)
  • Age
  • Citizenship status
  • Genetic information
  • Taking time off work under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

In addition, Michigan state law also prohibits discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Disability
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions)
  • Disability: physical or mental
  • Age
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • AIDS/HIV
  • Height or weight
  • Firing someone for refusing to break the law or do unethical things (public policy exception).
  • Whistleblower – Report unethical / illegal activities to outside agency.

As I said above, we all belong to a protected class of some sort.  Take me for example, it would be illegal for an employer to discriminate against me because I’m: white, Catholic, or male.

So what constitutes discrimination?  There are two main types of employment discrimination: (1) Harassment; and (2) Disparate Treatment.  Let’s take a look at each one.

Harassment

The legal term for this is “hostile work environment”.  It is illegal for your employer to subject you, or allow you to be in, a hostile work environment because of a protected characteristic.   An easy example is sexual harassment, but it can take many forms.  Let me give you some examples of real life cases my firm and I have handled involving harassment:

  • A young woman is constantly sexually harassed at work by coworkers. She has a dildo given to her after she breaks up with her boyfriend and is told that “she will probably need it.”  Co-workers make unwanted advances on her.  She is texted inside and outside of the office on a regular basis.  She complains to her boss, but he really doesn’t fix the problem.  She has to go to work every day in a sexually hostile work environment.  This is illegal because she is being harassed because of a protected class: sex.  In other words, if she was a man she would not be treated this way.
  • An African American man has a racist white supervisor.  The supervisor never outright calls the African American employee names or racial slurs. However, the supervisor treats the African American worker significantly worse than the white employees, gives him much more work and some of the worst jobs possible, and when the worker complains the supervisor brushes him off and says “you don’t know nothing about discrimination. This is illegal because it is harassment based on race.

Disparate Treatment

Disparate treatment is a lawyer way of saying something bad at your job happens to you because of a protected class.  Common examples are: you are fired; you are denied a promotion; you are demoted; you are denied other benefits such as raises.  There can be more.  Again, the reason the event happens must be based, at least in part, on a protected characteristic.  Examples are:

  • A highly qualified black candidate is passed over in a promotion to a lesser qualified white candidate;
  • A woman is given lower wages than her male counterparts;
  • A person is fired after revealing to their employer that they have a medical condition (e.g., epilepsy)

Employment law is convoluted and complicated.  You MUST contact an attorney as soon as the first signs of trouble appear so that he or she can advise you on how to handle the situation.  You don’t have to have smoking gun evidence.  Don’t keep telling yourself things will work out.  Don’t wait.  It can be too late. My clients who come and see prior to being fired are in much better shape than a client who comes to me only after the illegal employment actions have already taken place.  I have handled hundreds of employment cases, so if you or someone you know is facing an employment issue, do not hesitate to contact me.