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CAREER CORNER

‘At-will’ employees retain some job protections [by Michael Kinsman] A few weeks ago, Christine L. Boone won a $3.35 million court award because a jury decided she was fired for the wrong reason.

Boyd, a blind woman, was fired in August 2003

Boone had been appointed to her job by for-

as director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Blind-

mer Gov. Tom Ridge, and the state would have

“She was an assertive, independent blind

ness and Visual Services. The state said it was

been within its right to fire her or replace her

woman and that bothered some people,” he

for her job performance.

without offering a reason.

said.

Yet, after a two-week trial, a jury ruled that

But officials fired her for alleged insubordi-

The jury agreed that Boone had been discrimi-

Boyd was discriminated against because of

nation. They claimed that Boone refused to

nated against because of her blindness and

her blindness.

enforce an office policy that reduced federal

was not fired for her job performance.

benefits to blind individuals if they won college “Anyone who knows Christine knows that she

scholarships.

The at-will provision that exists in 49 states was born at the dawn of the industrial revolu-

has dedicated her life to helping the blind,” says Arch Stokes, the Atlanta-based attor-

Later the state compounded the mistake by

tion to allow companies to reduce payroll

ney who represented her and has litigated

sending out letters that said Boone had been

when they saw fit.

employment cases in 30 states. “You cannot

doing a disservice to the blind community. Aside from collective-bargaining agree-

question her commitment.” “That’s the worst thing they could have said

ments, there was little to prevent employers

Like most American workers, Boyd was an

to someone like Christine,” says Stokes. “You

from firing workers whenever they wanted

“at-will” employee. That’s an intimidating-

have to know that when Christine got to be

until federal and state civil rights legislation

sounding phrase that means you can be fired

the right age, she told her mother she wanted

surfaced in the 1960s. At that time, it became

at any time for a good reason, a bad reason or

to join the Girl Scouts. Her mother said she

illegal to discriminate against a spectrum of

no reason at all.

could get into a Girl Scout group for the blind,

human characteristics that people have no

but she insisted on being in the regular group.

control over.

It also means you can leave your employer for

She has spent her entire life trying to help the

another company any time you wish.

disabled become able.”

But it doesn’t mean that an employer can

That meant, he said, that she often looked for

firing people when you consider how much

violate state or federal civil rights to fire you.

long-term solutions to helping blind individu-

a company spends to recruit and train their

Various laws protect workers based on their

als rather than resorting to quick-fixes that

workers,” Paul says. “I think employers rightly

race, age, gender, nationality, religious af-

would build statistics to assure federal fund-

look at the at-will clause as a tool when it

filiation or disability. There are laws even to

ing of programs for the blind in Pennsylvania.

comes to contracts, but I don’t think they’re

protect corporate or governmental whistle-

Stokes said she supported Braille literacy pro-

going to fire people without a good reason

blowers.

grams for young blind people, realizing that

these days.”

“Some people may get worried when they hear at-will, but I don’t see any economic value to

they would stand a much greater chance of “Ten years ago, I think the at-will clause made

obtaining an education and entering the work

workers feel vulnerable,” says Richard Paul,

force. Yet, she would have gotten as much

an employment attorney. “But they seem to

credit from the federal government if she had

have learned to accept it. I don’t think they

just given a white cane to blind individual after

like it, but they also don’t feel that employers

blind individual without regard to how they

will fire them just because they can.”

would fit into society, he said.

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© Copley News Service


At-will' employees retain some job protections