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NYC Chips Away At-Will Employment

Like most states, employment in New York is “at-will.” However, the New York City Council aims to limit at-will employment for fast-food workers in its city. In the proposed bill, fast-food employers may not fire employees without “just cause.” Firing includes constructive discharge and reductions in hours totaling at least 15%. The new law defines “just cause” as the employee’s “failure to satisfactorily perform job duties or misconduct that is demonstrably and materially harmful to the fast food employer’s legitimate business interests.” Employees still in their 30-day probationary period will not be protected by this proposed new law.

Employers encountering unsatisfactory employee conduct must engage in a progressive discipline system to justify an ultimate termination. The system must include a “graduated range of reasonable responses” depending on the “frequency and degree of failure.” Employers are not required to use progressive discipline for “egregious” misconduct. When an employee’s conduct meets the “just cause” threshold, the employee is entitled to a prompt written explanation.

Employees who prevail on violations brought under the new regulation may be entitled to reinstatement as well as attorneys’ fees and costs. A court may also award a $500 penalty for each violation, rescission of the discipline, back pay and benefits, punitive damages, and injunctive relief. The bill also includes an expansion of the existing “predictive scheduling laws.” At the time of this writing, the bill was awaiting Mayor Bill De Blasio’s signature.