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‘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.
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
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
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.
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
grams for young blind people, realizing that
“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.
© Copley News Service
Published on Oct 30, 2012
Published on Oct 30, 2012
At-will employees retain some job protections. Laws protect workers based on their race, age, gender, nationality, religious affiliation or...