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Wednesday Worklaw Alert: Update on NYC Rights for “At Will” Fast-Food Employees

June 30th, 2021 Christopher Davis

A new, unprecedented protection law for New York City fast-food employees will take effect next month, in July 2021. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed off on this bill in January of 2021, after it passed the New York City Council in December 2020.The legislation provides fast-food workers with rare protection against unfair termination and sets a new precedent against the “at will” standard of employment in the U.S. Here, at The Working Solutions Law Firm, we support extending more rights and protections to those who are typically marginalized in employment, including fast-food workers.

The Harm of At-Will Employment for Fast-Food Employees

At-will employment in NYC means that at-will employees can be fired or disciplined for any reason, even an unfair reason, with exceptions including discrimination, complaining about discrimination, whistleblowing, complaining about public health issues, Medicare or Medicaid fraud, or certain white-collar crimes like securities, wire, or mail fraud. An employer’s ability to terminate an employee nearly at whim creates a significant power imbalance between the two parties. This can be seen in the fast-food industry where, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek article, workers are afraid to exercise collective action, such as striking, in fear that they may lose their job. As well, to contest a wrongful termination under at-will employment, an ex-employee must prove their termination was unlawful against a strong legal team with far more capital than themselves. As such, these workers often must resort to public shaming instead of the legal system to protest their employer’s wrongdoing. 

Protections Offered to Fast-Food Employees

The new policy marks a departure from the at-will employment standard by offering significant protections and job security to fast-food workers. Beginning in July, NYC fast-food workers will no longer be at-will employees. The policy ensures that employers must have a “just cause” or a “bona fide economic reason” to discharge an employee after their probationary period. The just-cause portion prevents employers from firing an employee unless they have failed to perform their job duties or have exhibited misconduct. Additionally, under this new policy, if an employee contests their termination, the burden is placed onto the employer to prove the reason for the termination was just. Furthermore, if a business experiences a full or partial shutdown, a “bona fide economic reason,” employees can be laid off in reverse order of seniority. However, if economic performance sees an upturn within 12 months, then employers must offer to reinstate those they laid off before making new hires. These new safeguards extend union-like protections to the un-unionized fast-food workforce.

The Future of Just-Cause Legislation

Already, around the country, workers’ protections are being bolstered. For instance, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Los Angeles passed an ordinance that required employers to call back workers they laid off due to the during the pandemic before hiring new employees. On the federal level, analysts and representatives from the Center for American Progress and the National Employment Law Project are in conversation with the Biden administration to enact just-cause policies for contractors seeking to work with the federal government. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders is applying pressure to make just cause employment the national standard. With this unprecedented legislation coming out of such a prominent city as NYC, just-cause employment may establish a new precedent for the future. 

Seek Legal Assistance Today

In the meantime, if you have experienced discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, seek legal assistance from the Working Solutions Law Firm, located in New York City and Livingston, NJ. Contact us today at (646) 430-7930 to schedule a free case evaluation and receive experienced legal counsel.