The busy summer season for agriculture can bring many blessings to agricultural employers but can also bring labor-related headaches such as the need to terminate employees. What legal rights do farm operators have to terminate employees in Maryland? When can they run afoul of State and Federal labor laws?
The good news is that in Maryland all employees are “at-will” employees meaning they work “at the will” of their employers. The means, in the absence of an express contract, agreement, or policy to the contrary, an employee may be hired or fired for almost any reason. This is a big benefit for employers in Maryland and an important one to understand. Employers who don’t understand the concept of “at-will” employment and use employment contracts and/or handbooks to protect themselves can unknowingly subject themselves to a higher standard for termination. For example, a contract or handbook which contains a complex system of notice, warnings, evaluation, etc. prior to a termination will trump the default standard of “at-will” employment and require an employer to implement the system outlined in the contractual document before a termination can occur. This is not to say that there isn’t any benefit to using contract and/or handbooks, but the documents should clearly state that they are not meant to change the “at-will” employment standard and should not establish a complicated system for terminations.
What Do Employees Need to Be Provided Upon Termination?
Regardless of the reason for termination, an employer should provide a terminated employee with all earned income on or before the day the employee would have been paid the wages if the employment had not been terminated. Further, unless the employer has a written policy to the contrary, the employee is also entitled to receive payment for all accrued leave upon termination. Many employers are often tempted to punish employees by withholding earned income and/or leave at the time of termination but this is not advisable. The law provides that employers who improperly withhold earned income and/or leave may be subject to a punitive award for up to 3 times the amount of the wages, counsel fees, and court costs. Therefore, if an employee’s termination involves a financial detriment to the employer such as damage to crops or equipment, the employer should consult with their attorney on how best to address that damage instead of deducting any amount from the employee’s final paycheck.
Reasons That Employees Should Not Be Legally Terminated
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, including the general standard of “at-will” employment. Employees cannot be terminated for reasons based in discrimination which means an employer cannot terminate an employee solely because of race, color, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability, or marital status.
As we all know, many forms of agricultural employment involve physical labor. The inability to perform said labor can be a common reason that an employer would want to terminate an employee but employers need to be very careful before firing an employee for this reason. The Americans with Disabilities Act affects employers with 15 or more employees and protects employees with a physical or mental disability. The law requires employers to provide disabled employees with a reasonable accommodation to allow them to continue to work at the operation. An employer may terminate an employee who cannot perform the essential functions of a job when a reasonable accommodation cannot be made by the employer. Good proof of this legal standard is a very clear and descriptive job announcement which includes the physical requirements of the job, i.e. “must be able to lift 25 lbs, must be able to perform strenuous outdoor labor for many hours at time, etc.” An employer who has advertised the job properly will have a good defense against a claim of discriminatory termination.
What if an employer has a legal reason to terminate an employee but is afraid that a termination will prompt the employee to claim the termination was based on discrimination? The best course of action for an employer who wants to terminate any employee but especially one who may claim discriminatory termination is to document the specific reasons the employee was terminated. Memories fade and an employer documenting the specific reasons (late to work X number of times, failed to show up for work on X dates) is a good practice to protect themselves should they be forced to defend a claim of discriminatory termination at a later date.
Retaliation is another reason that an employee cannot be terminated. If an employee has filed a worker’s compensation claim or has attempted to enforce their rights to receive fair wages or work in a safe workplace, the employee cannot be fired solely for these types of actions. Although it may be uncomfortable for the employer to have an employee on staff who has asked the state or Federal government to look into the employer’s operation, this is not a proper reason for termination and can subject an employer to further legal action.