I lost my job. Do I have rights?

Read this for help deciding if your termination was illegal, if your employer owes you anything or you owe your employer anything, and how to assert your rights. #2102EN

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

If you live and work in Washington State, read this to learn about what legal rights you may have if you lose your job. This will help you understand if your termination was illegal, if your employer owes you anything, if you owe your employer anything, and how to assert your rights.

You might have been "fired," "discharged," or "laid off." Your basic rights are similar, no matter which term applies. We use the word "terminate" to cover all situations.

Know why you were terminated. To find out why, send your employer a dated, written request by certified mail. Your employer must respond within 10 days with a letter stating the reasons for your termination. 

Talk to a lawyer, if possible. This is the best way to learn about your situation. Contact info is below. 

Act fast. Many employment laws have time limits. We call these "statutes of limitation." Some are as short as a few months after losing your job. 

If you do not act before the statute of limitation is up, the law may no longer protect you. A lawyer can help you find out which time limits apply to your situation. Contact info is below.

To understand if your termination was legal, you must know what kind of relationship you had with your employer.

In Washington State, most employees are hired at-will. That means your employer can terminate you any time, for any reason.

Some employees have individual written or implied employment agreements. Union workers may have collective bargaining agreements. Public employees may be protected by state laws, local laws, or regulations.

To figure out your employment relationship, look at:

  • Any letter you got inviting you to apply for the job or offering you the job

  • Any new-employee orientation materials or employee handbooks they gave you

  • Any contracts or agreements you signed

  • Any union contracts or laws and regulations that apply to your job

  • Your personnel file – you can get it from your employer's human resources ("HR") representative 

If you have questions about your employment relationship, ask the HR representative. The HR representative may see things from the employer's viewpoint, not yours. If you think your employer has illegally terminated you, talk to a lawyer.

If you are an at-will employee, an employer can usually terminate you any time, for any or no reason. An employer does not have to give you advance notice of termination. There are 3 exceptions to this:

  • If you and your employer changed your rights by entering into an agreement. (See sections on Individual Employment Agreements, Implied Employment Contracts, and Collective Bargaining Agreements, below.) Even then, the employer can still usually terminate you for "just cause." This means a "fair and honest reason." Examples include having or using drugs or alcohol, absenteeism, theft, incompetence, and lying.

  • If your employer terminated you for illegal reasons or reasons that are against public policy. (See "Was my termination illegal," below.)

  • If your employer is a large company, and a special situation like a plant closing or mass layoff requires it to give you advance notice of termination.

The agreement may say when and why the employer can terminate you. It may state how much notice you must get, and if your employer must impose less severe discipline before it can fire you. It may list procedures you and the employer must follow before and after termination. It may grant you certain rights if fired. 

Read your agreement and any documents it mentions carefully. If you have questions, talk to your HR representative or a lawyer.

Even if your employer says you are an at-will employee, written statements in employee or supervisor handbooks, orientation materials, policy manuals, and so on, may be "implied" employment contracts. Since your employer gave you these, you can rely on the employer to do what the materials say, even though it is not an official contract.

  • Example 1: John's employee handbook says "you will be terminated only for good cause," or "you will be terminated only after have you progressed through each step in the discipline process." This could mean John's employee handbook is an implied contract.

  • Example 2: John's handbook says, "Generally the employer will follow the discipline process," or "generally, you will be terminated only for good cause." John's employer may be able to treat him like an at-will employee.

Oral promises may also create an implied contract. Example: Jill's supervisor or an HR person told her at hiring that she would not be terminated without good cause. That could be an implied contract. In court, Jill must show she relied on this statement when she decided to take the job.  

If you have an implied contract, its terms may depend on how the employer enforces its policies with other employees. "Good cause" can mean different things to different employers. Example: Marie's employer does not care if Marie swears on the job. Paul's employer considers that good cause to fire an employee.

Your union contract says when your employer can terminate you. Some union contracts have a "just cause" provision. (See section on At-Will Employment, above.) Most have a "grievance procedure" you must follow to challenge your employer's decisions. 

Your union rep must help you understand your rights under the collective bargaining agreement. The union rep must represent you if you believe your employer violated the agreement. Contact your union rep as soon as possible. You may lose your rights if you do not file a grievance within days of your termination. If you think the union is not properly representing you, talk with a higher-level union representative or a labor lawyer.

Specific laws, regulations and personnel manuals may limit reasons your employer can terminate you or set out procedures your employer must follow and procedures for you if you object. Talk to your HR representative or a lawyer.

No matter who your employer or what your relationship is, your employer cannot terminate you for a reason that is against the law. It is, generally, illegal for your employer to terminate you for any of these reasons:

  • You refused to take a lie-detector test. (Note: some jobs can require this test.)

  • You refused to take an HIV or Hepatitis C test. (Note: state law requires these tests for certain jobs.)

  • You tried to take reasonable meal or rest breaks during the workday.

  • You missed work because you served on a jury or voted.

  • You missed work because you took Family & Medical Leave.

  • You are, or the employer believes you are, a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

  • You did not pay child support, or your employer had to deduct support payments from your wages.

  • You filed for bankruptcy.

  • You made a complaint with your employer or government authority about how much you get paid.

  • You tried to organize a union.

  • You tried to oppose, report, or take part in a harassment or discrimination investigation.

  • You refused to commit an illegal act for your employer.

  • You reported illegal activity or misconduct by your employer ("whistle blowing").

  • You reported safety violations or otherwise acted to protect your safety or others' at work.

  • You exercised a legal right, such as filing for worker's compensation.

  • You performed a public duty, such as saving a human life.

If your employer had 8 or more workers on payroll, it is illegal if your employer discriminated against you on any of these grounds:

  • Your disability or use of a service animal.

  • Your age (40+), gender, race, color, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, or political activity.

  • Your military status or because you are an honorably discharged veteran.

  • Your citizenship or national origin. It is illegal for employers to hire undocumented immigrants or to discriminate based on immigration status. Immigration laws are complicated. Talk to an immigration lawyer if you think this type of discrimination happened to you.

This is not a complete list. Read Employment Discrimination to learn more.

It is also illegal if you felt you had to quit because the employer deliberately made your working conditions so bad that a reasonable person would have felt they had to quit. Example: severe or frequent sexual harassment.

Maybe. They may owe you:

A final paycheck - Your employer must promptly pay you all wages or salary it owes you, including overtime. This is due on your regularly scheduled pay day. Depending on the employer's policies, you may be entitled to vacation and sick leave pay. It may be illegal for the employer to deduct from your final paycheck for amounts you may owe.

COBRA - If you took part in the employer's medical plan, the federal COBRA Act generally entitles you to continue plan coverage for 18 months or more (unless the employer has few employees). The employer must give you timely notice of this option. You must choose to continue coverage under COBRA within 60 days of your termination. You will generally pay the full cost of the premium, plus 2 percent.

Contact your employer as soon as possible if you do not get the materials you need to sign up for this coverage when the employer terminates you. Make sure you meet the time requirements set by COBRA and the employer's medical plan. Learn more at the U.S. Department of Labor website.

HIPAA - If you took part in the employer's medical plan, the plan usually must give you a certificate of health coverage after your employment ends. You may need this certificate when you start your new job, to avoid health benefit restrictions there. Ask for this certificate as soon as possible after you lose coverage under the old plan, when your COBRA coverage ends, or when you start a new job.

Benefit payments - If you got medical care while employed, and your employer's medical plan covered it, the plan must reimburse you even though you are now unemployed. Follow the plan's procedures carefully. You must timely appeal any failure to pay benefits. Your summary plan description should help you understand your rights under the plan. If you do not have a copy of the summary plan description, ask the employer's HR department for a copy as soon as possible.

Severance pay - If the employer had a severance pay program, you may be entitled to this. Check your employment agreement, employee handbook or employer policy materials.

Retirement benefits - If you participated in the employer's 401(k) or other retirement plans, you generally keep certain rights under those plans after termination. Check your summary plan description or contact your employer's HR department.

Contractual obligations - If you had an employment agreement, it may give you certain rights after your termination. Read it carefully. Think about talking to a lawyer to make sure the employer is giving you everything the agreement lists.

Defamation/references - By law, your employer may not defame you (say things about you that are not true and cause you harm), and generally may not interfere with your new job search. Employers generally can share truthful info about you when responding to requests for job references.

Maybe. It depends on your employment agreement or employer policies. You may owe your former employer -

Preventing further damages: If you plan to file a lawsuit for illegal termination, you may have to show the court you have been looking for a new job. Make copies of resumes you send out. Keep a list of places you apply. Without this proof, the court may award you less. 

Confidentiality: You may be bound by a policy that keeps you from revealing the employer's trade secrets, customer lists, marketing plans, and so on. The policy might be in an agreement you signed, an employee handbook, or a conversation with your manager. If you reveal confidential info, you may have to pay the employer damages. 

Non-compete and non-solicitation limitations: Your employment agreement may say you cannot compete with the employer for business or solicit its employees or customers. Such provisions are legal in Washington if reasonable and needed to protect the employer's legitimate business interests. If you violate these provisions, you may have to pay the employer damages. But Washington courts will not enforce an agreement that unreasonably interferes with your ability to work in your profession or make a living. 

Defamation: If you make harmful and false statements about the employer, its products, or employees, you may have to pay the employer damages. 

Reread your employment agreement, employee handbook or any other policy materials. If you still have questions, contact your former supervisor, the employer's HR department, or a lawyer.

Maybe, if the employer terminated you for a reason that is not your fault. Your unemployment benefits will equal a percentage of the pay you got when you were employed, for a limited time.

Filing an unemployment claim is not hard, but you must do it soon after your termination. Read the Unemployment Law Project's What to Do After Termination to learn more.

If you believe your employer has violated your rights or illegally terminated you, you may have to do these:

Arbitration, if your employer requires it. This process uses a neutral, third-party decision-maker instead of the court system. The employer's policies or your employment agreement may require arbitration.

*Some types of arbitration clauses are not enforceable in Washington. Talk to a lawyer to find out if you must, or should, arbitrate your termination issues.

A grievance procedure, if a collective bargaining agreement applies. Follow the procedure to avoid losing your rights. Make sure you understand it. Talk with a union rep right away for help.

If your claim involves illegal discrimination, you can sue in state court at the same time you file complaints with state or federal government agencies.

These government agencies can help protect you against discrimination or offer you other remedies:

*There are time limits for reporting discrimination once you have been terminated. Talk to a lawyer as soon as possible about time limits, procedures, and whether your case involves discrimination.

If your claim involves action you took with other employees: If you believe you were terminated because you took "concerted action" (action by two or more employees together) over workplace issues, contact the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB"). They can look into whether your employer has violated the National Labor Relations Act. If so, the NLRB lawyer will try to reach a settlement. They may take the case on your behalf before the Board. You may get your job back plus back pay.

Suing the employer: If the employer has violated your rights, you can sue to get your job back or recover damages for the harm you have suffered. You should not make this decision lightly. Most lawsuits settle without a trial, but after a year or more of effort. Winning may be hard. You must prove your termination was illegal.

Once you file a lawsuit, the employer can get lots of personal info about your finances, medical history, and family relationships. If a court decides your claim is frivolous, you might have to pay some or all of the employer's legal fees. If you think you want to sue the employer, contact a lawyer as soon as possible to study your case, make a plan and file a lawsuit within the time limits. You must give the lawyer all the facts.

Maybe. Even if you do not file a lawsuit, you should talk to an employment lawyer, to understand your rights.

If you are not getting info you need from the employer – Ask a lawyer for help. This may inspire the employer to cooperate. See contact info below.

If you think the employer is giving incorrect or untrue info – An employer may pretend they are firing you for one reason while actually firing you for another. Without a lawyer's help, it may be hard to get the facts needed to figure out if your employer violated your legal rights when it terminated you. See contact info below.

Your first conversation with a lawyer may be free. Anything you say to a lawyer (even if you are just interviewing the lawyer to decide whether to hire them) will be confidential. You can talk with one lawyer, or several, for opinions about whether your employer has violated your rights.

Your lawyer's fees and costs - If you hire a lawyer to represent you in a wrongful termination case, the lawyer probably will do so on a contingency fee basis. You do not pay for any legal services unless the lawyer recovers some amount on your behalf. You will probably pay for actual costs, like court filing fees, document copying costs, court reporter fees, private investigator fees, and so on.

Finding a lawyer - Some local bar associations provide lawyer referral. How to Find a Lawyer can also help.

Get Legal Help

Visit Northwest Justice Project to find out how to get legal help. 

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Last Review and Update: May 31, 2023
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