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What's the Difference Between Right-To-Work and At-Will employment?

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by Nurse Beth Nurse Beth, MSN (Advice Column) Writer Innovator Expert

Nurse Beth has 30 years experience as a MSN and specializes in Med Surg, Tele, ICU, Ortho.

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Does Right-To-Work mean you can't be fired after orientation? What does At-Will mean to a working nurse? These are important labor terms to understand, and they vary state-to-state. Find out what they mean to you in this primer.

What's the Difference Between Right-To-Work and At-Will employment?

Ashley moved to Texas from Illinois to take a job in a surgical ICU. It was a challenging transition from her previous job in a StepDown unit, but Ashley welcomed the change. Halfway into her orientation, Ashley was called into her manager’s office and terminated without warning. Ashley’s preceptor had complained that she was “just not cutting it”. Ashley was devastated as her preceptor had not given her any constructive feedback, and Ashley had thought she was doing fine.

Driving home in the middle of the day, Ashley called her husband, who was still in Illinois selling their house, “I thought this was going to be my dream job but instead it’s a nightmare. I feel like such a failure, but they didn’t really give me a fair chance. Can they really do this to me?”

The answer is Yes. Ashley has no legal basis to dispute her termination, and it’s not just because she was in orientation. It could have happened at any point in her employment. Here’s some things nurses need to know about labor laws, and the difference between At-Will employment and Right-To-Work. These two terms are often misunderstood.

At-Will Employment

It’s important to understand at-will employment. The vast majority of states have at-will employment, which means the employer or the employee can sever the relationship at any time with or without cause and with or without notice. Most employees work under an at-will arrangement, whether they know it or not.

States who do not have at-will employment include:

  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Nebraska
  • New York
  • Rhode Island

Like most nurses, Ashley  is an At-Will employee. There are exceptions to At-Will employment, and that is when there is a contractual agreement with the employer. Usually this takes the form of a union contract. Even in Texas or any other At-Will employment state, the union contract regarding discipline and termination must be followed.

Likewise, employers are held to their own policies. Most smart employers know they have nothing to gain by firing employees arbitrarily and have written policies. So if the employee handbook states that employees must be given warning, or follow progressive discipline, or have just cause, they must follow their own policies.

Illegal Reasons for Termination

Even in At-Will states, there are illegal reasons for termination. Federal law trumps state laws and prevents employees from being discriminated against for national origin, race, gender, age, disability, or pregnancy.

Right-to-Work

Right-To-Work has nothing to do with whether you can be fired for performance. Right-to-work means the employee does not  have to join a union when hired into a facility with a unionized workforce. It’s the employee’s right to choose whether or not to join the union. They are entitled to work, hence “Right-To-Work”.

The opposite of Right-To-Work states are Forced Unionism states. Jonathan lives in Florida and was hired by a hospital where the nurses are unionized, but his parents are anti-union and he has mixed feelings about belonging to a union.

Since he lives in a Right-To-Work state, he cannot be forced to join the union, go out on strike, or pay union dues. He is, however, part of the bargaining unit and is entitled to union representation as part of the bargaining unit.

About half of the states are Right-To-Work states. Check here to see if your state is a Right-To-Work state or not. For example, Texas is a Right-To-Work state and its labor code states “A person may not be denied employment based on membership or nonmembership in a labor union. (Enacted 1993.) and “The right to work is the right to live”.

By contrast, if Jonathan was hired by a hospital in a Non-Right-To-Work state, such as California, under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, he would not have a choice, and would have to join the union, pay dues and go out on strike if need be. This is called a “union shop” whereby employees must join the union within a designated number of days after hire, and must maintain their union membership for the length of their employment.

Critics of Right-To-Work argue that all employees should have to join the union and pay dues, as a union contract benefits all employees, union member or not. Unions, such as the AFL-CIO, are anti right-to-work laws and lobby against them.

Summary

At-Will means an employee can be fired without reason. The majority of states are At-Will states, and while most employers have policies around discipline and termination, state law in At-Will states does not ensure termination for cause.

Right-To-Work means employees do not have to join a union when working in a unionized workforce. Approximately half of the states are Right-To-Work states.

I hope this helped your understanding of your rights, and be sure and check out your state laws regarding Right-To-Work and At-Will.

Nurse Beth
Author, "Your Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job"...and your next!

Hi! Nice to meet you! I love helping new nurses in all my various roles. I work in a hospital in Staff Development, and am a blogger and author.

15 Followers; 95 Articles; 230,425 Profile Views; 1,912 Posts

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TriciaJ has 38 years experience as a RN and specializes in Psych, Corrections, Med-Surg, Ambulatory.

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Thank you.  I never had a good understanding of the two entities.  Now I do.

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Daisy4RN has 20 years experience and specializes in Travel, Home Health, Med-Surg.

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Thanks for the info. While i dont agree with everything about Unions, this aspect does help with stress levels in at- will states so nurses dont have the constant threat of termination hanging over their heads, esp when "customer service" issues come up but the nurse needs to prioritize medical needs. 

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HomeBound has 20 years experience and specializes in ED, ICU, Prehospital.

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Thank you Nurse Beth, for the clarification.

There is another clarification that attaches to "Right to Work" and "Forced Unionism" states.

The Janus Decision.

"The Supreme Court's recent Janus v. AFSCME decision, which gave public service employees the right to stop paying any dues or fees to unions while still receiving union-negotiated benefits."

So NO, you don't have to pay union dues ANYMORE and still be covered/protected by the union itself. You can and do gain the benefits such as higher pay scales, better health benefits, (in some states) negotiated lunch/break time, vacations, etc.

The unions suffered a terrible setback with this decision, because it's a backdoor to break them. Defund the unions, there is no lobby power. Lobbyists need money to get their message to Congress and other governmental agencies. Striking is only one tool in the arsenal for Nurse's unions.

In other words, there is only "Right to Work" and "At Will" employment because of this Supreme Court decision. 

Personally, I come from a "Right to Work" state and I still saw/experienced more instances than I can count of employers terminating employees without any type of "disciplinary process". It's a tough, expensive and oftentimes futile journey to sue an employer in court for wrongful termination. At the end of any day---the employer can and does simply place you on a "Do Not Rehire" list and it's up to you to fight it---and that rarely works.

I think this goes back to that thread about being fired for putting an IV in without proper authorization, or even registration--the nurse did it to him/herself.

The moral of the story should be that you need to go to work to do one thing---work. It's not social hour, or a find a husband/wife project---and those who believe that they can stand at the nurses' station and do nothing but gossip or chart that they did work when they did not, or while bored with "nothing to do" (is there such a place? can I get a job there?) and just no critical thinking skill that whispers it might not be a great idea to do selfies with IV bags labeled with names of alcohol, posting them on instagram---those days are coming to an end. I just stand back and shake my head at some of these newer (and sometimes not new, but never learned) nurses that think they get to behave however they choose and yet have recourse when an employer has had enough of their rubbish.

With Janus this means that in a not-too-distant future...there may not be any union representation to make sure you get a fair shake, whether you're right or you're wrong in how you practice.

 

Edited by HomeBound
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wondern has 20 years experience as a ASN.

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Tennessee is an At-Will state. 

Nurses need their rights protected with their own National Union or even better yet, an International Union. Nurses unite! :heartbeat::snurse::nurse::nurse::snurse::nurse::heartbeat:

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My understanding of Janus was that it applied to public service employees only. As in, people who work at University of California or other state hospitals are affected, but those who work at private hospitals/hospital systems (Sutter, Kaiser, Sharp, and others) are unaffected. Am I interpreting this correctly? Where do VA employees stand in all of this?

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3.24.95 has 23 years experience as a LPN and specializes in Nurse-of-all-trades, but mostly Peds/GP/PDN.

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I have run out of adjectives in which to describe how insanely unjust and unfair the at-will system is.

In the same meeting -- with a very abrupt request, abt 10 minutes in, for me to go sit in the waiting room, "so me (DON) and Administrator can talk" -- I went from a great asset that they really needed, to "we don't think this is the right setting for you."

You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather!

DON and Rehab UM knew I was the right person for the job, but were intimidated/jealous of my knowledge, experience and even self-honesty...creating things to nit-pick, sabotaging my every move/decision, taking credit for my ideas/work, and so much more.

I confronted them -- together -- on a couple different occasions about contradictions and conflicting information. The DON always spoke first, then they'd work off each other, moving goal posts, creating nonsensical rules and citing nonexistent policies, in order to support one another/not look like an incompetent idiot...the irony.

It was a truly bizarre experience. But research indicates 2-out-10 persons in supervisory/managerial roles are bonafide psychopaths, and I've had the misfortune of encountering so many, that I think it's more like 3 or 4 out of 10 : /

For what it's worth, I was granted unemployment. Not easy to do, when you're terminated.

 

 

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On 4/9/2019 at 3:53 PM, HomeBound said:

Thank you Nurse Beth, for the clarification.

There is another clarification that attaches to "Right to Work" and "Forced Unionism" states.

The Janus Decision.

"The Supreme Court's recent Janus v. AFSCME decision, which gave public service employees the right to stop paying any dues or fees to unions while still receiving union-negotiated benefits."

So NO, you don't have to pay union dues ANYMORE and still be covered/protected by the union itself. You can and do gain the benefits such as higher pay scales, better health benefits, (in some states) negotiated lunch/break time, vacations, etc.

The unions suffered a terrible setback with this decision, because it's a backdoor to break them. Defund the unions, there is no lobby power. Lobbyists need money to get their message to Congress and other governmental agencies. Striking is only one tool in the arsenal for Nurse's unions.

In other words, there is only "Right to Work" and "At Will" employment because of this Supreme Court decision. 

Personally, I come from a "Right to Work" state and I still saw/experienced more instances than I can count of employers terminating employees without any type of "disciplinary process". It's a tough, expensive and oftentimes futile journey to sue an employer in court for wrongful termination. At the end of any day---the employer can and does simply place you on a "Do Not Rehire" list and it's up to you to fight it---and that rarely works.

I think this goes back to that thread about being fired for putting an IV in without proper authorization, or even registration--the nurse did it to him/herself.

The moral of the story should be that you need to go to work to do one thing---work. It's not social hour, or a find a husband/wife project---and those who believe that they can stand at the nurses' station and do nothing but gossip or chart that they did work when they did not, or while bored with "nothing to do" (is there such a place? can I get a job there?) and just no critical thinking skill that whispers it might not be a great idea to do selfies with IV bags labeled with names of alcohol, posting them on instagram---those days are coming to an end. I just stand back and shake my head at some of these newer (and sometimes not new, but never learned) nurses that think they get to behave however they choose and yet have recourse when an employer has had enough of their rubbish.

With Janus this means that in a not-too-distant future...there may not be any union representation to make sure you get a fair shake, whether you're right or you're wrong in how you practice.

 

The Janus decision only affected public service NOT private.  So unless your hospital is government affiliated you were not affected by the Janus decision, YET! 

However, I must say if the union is equally supportive of its nurses as it is it’s politics said union would not need to a law to force union membership. Unfortunately, in states like California this is not the case. Dues are spent on political figures and their campaigns rather than members, representatives, legal issues, or even data access of union updates to include recent contract negotiation results.

If the union prioritizes members over politicians, JANUS in private sector wouldn’t have a major impact. As proof see IOPA UPS private union in a right to work state, with 100% cooperation! 

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Daisy4RN has 20 years experience and specializes in Travel, Home Health, Med-Surg.

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47 minutes ago, Stephhsrperrn said:

 

However, I must say if the union is equally supportive of its nurses as it is it’s politics said union would not need to a law to force union membership. Unfortunately, in states like California this is not the case. Dues are spent on political figures and their campaigns rather than members, representatives, legal issues, or even data access of union updates to include recent contract negotiation results.

 

This was also my problem with the Union in California. Not using the dues for its members/nurses. Our unit also called a few times for various issues and (surprisingly!) they were not receptive to assist. This came too late for me but if I had the choice to pay or not I would not!

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Hoosier_RN has 20 years experience as a MSN and specializes in LTC, home health, hospice, ICU, ER, dialysis.

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Thanks for putting this info out.  I thought I knew the difference, but NOPE! This may help a nurse who is having issues, or fired, to know what their options are

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On 4/10/2019 at 12:01 PM, wondern said:

Tennessee is an At-Will state. 

While I completely agree with unionizing nursing which is the stuff of nightmares for corporate healthcare aren't you from Texas?

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On 4/10/2019 at 2:13 PM, lifeatthebluffs said:

My understanding of Janus was that it applied to public service employees only. As in, people who work at University of California or other state hospitals are affected, but those who work at private hospitals/hospital systems (Sutter, Kaiser, Sharp, and others) are unaffected. Am I interpreting this correctly? Where do VA employees stand in all of this?

Apparently the ruling applies to private hospitals as well .

I started working at one of the private California hospital systems you mentioned post Janus and I did not have to join the union nor sign up for payroll deduction for union fees.  The admin provided clear guidance on the procedures to opt out. 

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