What Is Lawful at Work – Case Studies of Minnesota “Employment-At-Will”

With headlines full of information about “the Great Resignation,” it’s no surprise that many employees are grappling with big questions about whether their employer’s actions are lawful. Especially during the pandemic, as employers are challenged with staffing shortages and supply chain issues, they make sweeping changes. This leads many employees to ask: can they do that? Is my employer’s behavior legal or illegal? Do I have an employment law claim? 

These questions are critical and surround topics that employees need answers to. The best way to know whether you have an employment law claim is to talk to an experienced employment lawyer. But, you might be looking at your situation and wonder, is it helpful to know what employers can and cannot legally do in Minnesota? 

The Impact of Minnesota’s At-Will Employment 

 The foundation of employment in Minnesota is that it is “at-will.” At-will employment means that an employer can hire or terminate an employee at any time, for any reason, except for an unlawful reason. Likewise, an employee can quit at any time for any reason. 

What that means in practice is that many everyday situations are lawful. For example, the following scenarios on their own typically do not give rise to employment-related claims:

  • An employee who has a personality conflict with a manager; 
  • An employee who has a difference in philosophy regarding the work; 
  • An employee who disagrees with their employer over the quality of care or service for clients or patients; 
  • An employee who is asked to complete additional job responsibilities.

Because of at-will employment, if an employee is terminated for voicing the above concerns or refuses to undertake more job duties or responsibilities, the employer’s action to terminate the employee is generally lawful, and there is no cause of action for the employee. Similarly, when an employer makes budget cuts or cuts an employee’s hours because of budget constraints, they can typically do so unilaterally, not giving rise to an employment claim.  

Employee Protections in Minnesota

However, at-will employees in Minnesota have certain protections, including protection from discrimination and retaliation in certain circumstances. First, an employer cannot treat employees differently because they belong to a group or “protected class.” Minnesota law protects people in the following “protected classes”:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Creed
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Marital status
  • Familial status
  • Disability
  • Public assistance
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Local human rights commission activity

This means if an employer takes any adverse action (for example, cutting hours, demoting, or firing an employee) based on the individual’s status as part of a protected class, that employee may have legal recourse for discrimination.  

Second, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for reporting unlawful activity at work or for reporting discrimination or sexual harassment. This means that if an employer takes any adverse action (for example, cutting hours, demoting, or firing an employee) because that employee reported unlawful activity, discrimination, or sexual harassment, that employee may have legal recourse for retaliation.   

Case Studies of Employer Actions 

Even with this information on lawful and unlawful employer behavior, it’s hard to know whether an action taken in the workplace is legal or illegal. This is because there are many factors and considerations that go into whether someone has an employment law claim. If you believe you have fallen victim to unlawful behavior, you can and should contact an employment attorney for an individual case evaluation based on your specific situation.  

The following examples highlight how there are exceptions to every rule and why some situations that are “legal” can, under some circumstances, give rise to legal claims.  

  1. An overworked healthcare professional: In what is all too familiar, health care professionals are increasingly asked to take on more responsibilities and hours to cover for sick staff and a shortage of workers. Given high burnout and fatigue in the third year of the pandemic, health care workers in hospitals, long-term care, or home health settings may feel enough is enough. They may find the desire to take action against an employer for adding additional tasks (often uncompensated) to their already full plate. Unfortunately, the employer can legally require an employee to take on different tasks. And, an employer can fire an employee who refuses to do so.
      • Exception – unlawful retaliation: If the same healthcare worker makes a protected report of unlawful activity, such as the maltreatment of vulnerable adult or other patient safety issue, often which stem from overworked employees and an understaffed facility, and is terminated because of that protected report, that employee might have a whistleblower claim. An employer cannot legally fire an employee for reporting unlawful activity.
  2. New boss conflicts: Due to attrition, promotion, and other market influences, many employees will report to a new boss, manager, or supervisor this year. A sales manager has a new boss and immediately begins to clash with the new boss. In this case study, the boss is in her 30s and manages the employee in his 60s. The new manager begins to implement a series of new rules and protocols and starts asking her employees for greater work product accountability, checking in daily on sales targets, or hitting deadlines faster. The sales representative becomes frustrated at what is perceived as a “hostile” environment based on the new demands. In most cases, the supervisor’s actions to alter and change practices and protocols are lawful.
      • Exception – Discrimination: If the same employee is the only employee in his 60s (every other one is 40 or under) and is the only one subjected to these new standards, that employee may have an age discrimination claim. Also, if the manager makes comments like “I’m sick of teaching old men to do things they should already know” or “I like working with millennials and Gen Z’ers” and takes adverse action (such as putting on a performance improvement plan, demoting, or firing the employee), there may be a claim of age discrimination.  

How Do I Know What is Unlawful?

 If you believe your employer or supervisor’s actions (such as demoting or firing you) were taken based on your status as part of a protected class or following a report of unlawful activity, such as discrimination, sexual harassment, unsafe work environment, or other legal violation, you may have an employment law claim. If you want a thorough evaluation of your particular circumstances, we’re happy to review your situation and provide guidance to you. Contact the experienced legal team at MSB Employment Justice today to discuss your case.

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Bree Johnson

After more than a decade in the legal industry and BigLaw firms, attorney and activist Bree Johnson saw an opportunity to do more for employees who are mistreated in the workplace with a career move to representing employees and plaintiffs. See Full Bio

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