Wyoming Workers: You can be fired at any time

It’s a rare week that passes without a call from someone who says something like this:  “I have been working for the Rio Grande Hotel as a chef for six months.  My employer has told me at least a dozen times that I am the best employee he has ever had and he loves my work.  But this morning he called me at home and told me not to bother coming to work — that he was firing me.  He wouldn’t tell me why, he wouldn’t tell me anything, other than to pick up my last paycheck from the bookkeeper tomorrow.  He can’t do that, can he?”

Welcome to Wyoming, the last and best of the West.  We especially prize out independence in this magnificent state, yet individually and collectively we pay a great price for it.

In Wyoming if you are not self-employed you are presumed to be an employee “at will”.  What does that mean?  It means your employer can fire you for any reason, or for no reason, or for the wrong reason.  Period.

Looking on the bright side of the equation – if there is one – it also means that you, as an employee, can walk out the door on a moment’s notice and never look back.  An employee “at will” has the same right to terminate the employment relationship as does his or her employer.

The main ingredient in the at-will employment doctrine is employment for an indefinite period of time, which is typical of most of the service industry jobs in Jackson Hole.  Even though there may be talk of hiring “for the season”, this is still considered to be an indefinite period and so the seasonal jobs at Teton Village and elsewhere around the valley are considered at-will employment.

As a general rule, the Wyoming Supreme Court has not been particularly kind and gentle to the worker bees in our state.  Why not?  In a 1997 case, the court provided insight as to its virtually unbending commitment to the at-will employment doctrine.  The court stated that employment law in Wyoming “ … has developed from the premise that the stability of the business community is our primary consideration…”

“Based on that fundamental precept, we have produced the rule that, unless an express or implied contract states or establishes otherwise, all employment is a contract for at-will employment.  An at-will employee can be terminated for any or no reasons at all.  The at-will employee rule offers no remedy to an employee who has been arbitrarily or improperly discharged and has suffered adverse effects on his or her economic and social status regardless of how devastating those affects actually were.  Stability in the business community is preserved.”

The good news is that the Wyoming Supreme Court has also decreed that not every employment relationship is “at-will”.  There are other types of employment to which more employee-friendly rules may apply.

For example, employment for a definite period of time, meaning for a fixed and agreed upon time, whether it be six months, eight months, one year, two years, or some other certain period, is not generally considered to be “at will”, and is governed by the actual agreement of the parties.  If there is such an agreement, let’s say for a one-year period, then the employer may not lawfully terminate the employee during this period without just cause.  (The phrase “just cause” has itself been the subject of endless litigation, but hopefully you get the idea.)

Some employers in Jackson Hole, typically the larger ones such as the hospital and the town and county governments, have employee handbooks which may affect whether employment is considered at-will or requires cause for termination.  Employment cases involving employee handbooks are probably the most frequently litigated issue in this area of the law in Wyoming.

The employee handbook typically provides that the employee is initially hired on a probationary status for some period of time, say 90 days, and may be terminated at will during the probationary period.  Thereafter, a “progressive step” procedure is usually implemented.  This theoretically humane concept involves employee discipline at the least intrusive level.

For instance, if an employee does something considered not so good, rather than the employee being terminated the discipline is handled progressively, if at all possible.  The first step may involve a heart-to-heart talk with the boss.  If that does not work then a bad boy or girl letter may go into the employee’s personnel file.  If that still does not work then suspension may be imposed, and so on, all the way up to those three dreaded words – you are fired.

Employers have been sued so often for violation of employee handbook policy that their lawyers have wizened up considerably.  An employee handbook written for the new millennium will usually contain language on the inside cover or on the first page in bold italicized jumbo print which states something to the effect of: “Do not be fooled by the enlightened sounding words in this handbook.  We are just kidding.  We will fire you in a heartbeat if you make us mad.  Have a nice day.”

I don’t want to leave this subject without mentioning a recent Wyoming Supreme Court decision which seems to capture the essence of employment law in Wyoming.

The plaintiff, let’s call her Sarah, was an administrative assistant for a Wyoming company call Unicover Corp.  When a competitor beat Unicover Corp. to market with a concept it was developing, a vice president of the company began an investigation of Sarah’s supervisor.  The vice president requested Sarah turn over files on the project which she had at her house.  Sarah was hesitant to do so for fear she would lose her job.  The vice president assured her that there was absolutely no risk of her being terminated by the company for cooperating in the investigation.  Sarah turned over the files.

Guess what?  Sarah lost her job the very next day, canned by her supervisor and the company president for disloyalty to the supervisor.  The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that Sarah was an at-will employee and, notwithstanding the assurances of the vice president, the company had every right to fire her.

You know folks, it is a cold and cruel world.  All I can do is suggest that as soon as you finish reading this article you run straight to your lawyer’s office and give him or her a great big hug.  It’s better than money in the bank.