At Will Employment:
Under Pennsylvania law, employment is presumed to be “at will.” Under at-will employment, either employees or employers may end the employment relationship for any reason, so long as it is not illegal. Contract employees, on the other hand, can usually only be terminated for reasons specified in their employment contract. In order to overcome the presumption of at-will employment guided by Pennsylvania law, employees must demonstrate some set of circumstances and facts that created some tenure of employment. It is difficult to overcome that presumption under Pennsylvania law and many view it as an up-hill battle.
Pennsylvania law does not require that employers have employee handbooks, but it’s always a good idea to create one anyway. Employee handbooks provide one centralized, complete, and consistent record of the company policies and procedures. It makes it harder for employees to later claim they didn’t know about a certain policy they should have known about, provided that employers make sure they give a copy of the handbook to each and every employee and convey to them the importance of reading it in its entirety.
Employee handbooks should include at least the following:
- A statement indicating the at-will nature of employment;
- A statement indicating the company is an equal opportunity employer;
- A policy defining sexual and other types of harassment and forbidding them;
- Policies governing Internet access, email, and voicemail policies; and
- Employee rights and responsibilities under The Family Medical Leave Act
Pennsylvania laws regarding an employer’s duties and responsibilities arising under an employee handbook are complex, and one of the many qualified Pennsylvania lawyers practicing employment law should be consulted to make sure the employer understands all of these duties.
Both federal and Pennsylvania laws require that most employers provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. In most jurisdictions, employees can lodge anonymous complaints to a state or federal agency if they feel their company provides a hazardous or unsafe work environment, free from the threat of employer reprisals.
The specific Pennsylvania law regulating the safety and protection of workers is Pennsylvania’s General Safety Law No. 174. This law, however, takes second place to the Federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations for private sector employees and, as a result, only applies to public sector employees.
Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation laws were created to compensate those employees (or their families) who are injured or killed in job-related accidents. These laws provide for compensation under a fixed monetary scheme and exist to prevent employees from having to resort to litigation to get the compensation they deserve. Dependents of fatally injured employees are entitled to benefits in certain situations.
Under Pennsylvania law, workers’ compensation operates under a “trade-off” basis. Employees receive prompt workers’ compensation benefits for on-the-job injuries, while the limited workers’ compensation benefits provide partial protection for the employer, even in cases where the employer acted negligently. In Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation oversees the provisions of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act and the Office of Adjudication administers the process for adjudicating workers’ compensation claims.
Employers must promote a workplace free of “sexual harassment” (which includes unwelcome sexual advances, conduct or other physical or verbal acts of a sexual nature), or risk being held liable when such harassment occurs in the workplace. The following conduct is typically considered sexual harassment:
- Direct sexual conduct – employees make sexual advances or statements toward others;
- “Quid pro quo” – job-related benefits are offered or threatened to be withheld in exchange for sexual conduct; and/or
- Hostile work environment – an employer maintains an overly sexual work environment
Because Pennsylvania laws determining what sort of conduct or pattern of conduct rises to the level of actionable sexual harassment are complex, employers should contact neutral Pennsylvania lawyers to review individual circumstances.
Discrimination and Wrongful Termination:
Employers are not allowed to terminate or discriminate against employees due to age, race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or pregnancy. It’s also illegal for an employer to consider these characteristics when it comes to promotions, job assignments, termination, or wages. Employers are also prohibited by federal and Pennsylvania law to terminate an employee in the following circumstances:
- For refusing to break a law;
- In retaliation for filing a discrimination or safety claim;
- For taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act;
- Without following its own stated procedure or policy; and
- For reasons not contained in the employment contract, should one exist.
Family and Medical Leave:
Under federal and Pennsylvania law, eligible employees are entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave each calendar year, with continued medical benefits and restoration of their original or comparable position upon their return to the workplace. Employees are deemed to be eligible under FMLA when they:
- Have worked for the same employer for the previous 12 months;
- Have worked at least 1250 hours in the previous 12 months; and
- Are employed by a “covered” employer, which includes all federal, state, and local governments and agencies along with private employers with 50 or more employees for 20 weeks in the calendar year who are engaged in interstate commerce.