Labor allies target ‘at-will’ employment rules

Groups support state legislation that would ban an employer from firing someone without just cause.

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Statehouse Democrats and business groups couldn’t reach a compromise during the legislative session earlier this year on changing the state’s controversial Biometric Information Privacy Act.

The Secure Jobs Act would require employers to provide a written reason for terminations and progressive discipline to allow workers to improve.

AP file

A coalition of worker rights organizations and legislative allies Wednesday urged passage of a state law that would bar employers from firing workers without good reason.

The proposal, dubbed the Secure Jobs Act, would overturn in Illinois a longstanding principle in force in almost all states — that jobs are given “at will” and can be withdrawn without liability. There are exceptions, however, including whether a union contract applies or whether the firing is otherwise illegal, such as because of discrimination.

The act’s proponents, organized by the Raise the Floor Alliance, said at-will rules unduly affect Black and Latino workers, who are often afraid of retaliation and are unlikely to complain to government agencies. They said the pandemic has worsened conditions for many low-wage workers.

“At-will employment is very clear. Workers can be fired for any or for no reason at all,” said state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, lead sponsor of the bill in the House. In the Senate, the bill’s lead sponsor is Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago.

“At its core, this is a racial justice and economic justice issue that can no longer be ignored,” Villanueva said.

Joining a virtual meeting about the legislation were three workers who said they were unjustly fired. Martha Rios said she lost a job as a school custodian when she complained about her hourly pay being shorted. “We face threats for fighting back and speaking up, and they try to force us to quit,” she said via a Spanish translator provided by the legislation’s backers.

Yolanda Gomez said she was fired from a day care provider when she objected that her $14-an-hour rate was reduced to $11. She said her boss threatened to report her to immigration officials.

“In the at-will employment system, workers are treated as disposable,” said Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor.

The act would require employers to provide a written reason for terminations and progressive discipline to allow workers to improve. It would ban actions designed to force workers to quit, such as reducing hours, and would prevent companies from using electronic monitoring as evidence in employee discipline.

The state’s Labor Department would be authorized to investigate violations and mete out penalties.

The proposal might not be a priority for all labor organizations and is expected to draw determined opposition from business groups. The Chicago Federation of Labor had no comment on the legislation and the Illinois AFL-CIO had no immediate reaction.

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce said in a bill analysis that the proposal would add new burdens on companies and subject them to lawsuits. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce could not immediately be reached.

A labor source said unions that form a powerful lobby in Springfield are satisfied with the many exceptions to the at-will rule and prefer to focus on other legislative priorities.

Zaman said several progressive unions such as SEIU Healthcare and the Chicago Teachers Union are backing the legislation. She said the group has “opened lines of communications” with other labor advocates.

The CFL and SEIU Healthcare have ownership stakes in Sun-Times Media.

Supporters, including the National Employment Law Project, said there are still too many loopholes that allow at-will firings.

They commissioned a survey by Hart Research Associates in which 37% of Illinois workers reported being fired for unfair reasons. Of those fired, 42% were given no reason, said the January survey of more than 800 people.

In the state House, the proposed act is HB3530 and has been assigned to the Rules Committee. In the Senate, SB2332 is in the Executive Committee. There are several co-sponsors in each chamber, all Democrats.

Both committees are traditional burying grounds for legislation, but Ammons said lawmakers are just now being alerted to the bills’ intent. She pointed to a House labor committee hearing Wednesday where various worker protections were discussed.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has reported that the at-will doctrine applies in 49 states, the exception being Montana. It said most nations worldwide allow dismissals only for cause.

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