Is Arizona an “At Will” Employment State?


In the state of Arizona, the employment relationship between an employer and an employee is like a contract that can be severed at any time if either party intends to end the employment relationship (ARS 23-1501). This means an employee can quit at any time, and an employer can terminate an employee at any time. Such is the basis for the term “at will” employment. While the freedom to end the contract is a two-way street, “at will” employment has generally become known as an employer’s ability to terminate an employee for any reason, at any time, without any advance notice. That said, there are several exceptions under which an employer cannot terminate an employee.

A Formal Employment Contract

If there is a written employment agreement signed by both parties, the rules of that contract would trump the state’s “at will” law. For example, if the contract specifies that employment is to begin on Jan 1, 2017, and end when the project concludes on Dec 31, 2017, the employer cannot terminate the employee before Dec 31, 2017. However, the contract is likely to include terms under which the employer can terminate employment, especially if the employee takes part in criminal behavior, so the employer will still have the ability to terminate for reasonable circumstances. The employment contract may not be “at will,” but the employee will still be held to certain standards.

Termination in Violation of a Federal Statute that Prohibits Discrimination or Retaliation

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 establishes the minimum wage, overtime pay, employer-recordkeeping requirements, and child labor restrictions. Every employee has the right to file a complaint regarding fair compensation with the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). Any employee who is party to a complaint or lawsuit, whether the employee is the whistleblower or a witness called to testify, cannot be terminated if the primary reason is employer retaliation.

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 requires that employers offer men and women equal pay, as long as they are performing equal work in the same workplace. An employer cannot retaliate against an employee who files a complaint, is party to an investigation, or who asks coworkers about their salary if they suspect discriminate pay.

Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (Title III) of 1963 prohibits employers from terminating employees on the basis that an employee’s wages are being garnished by creditors.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, national origin, or gender. An employer cannot terminate an employee based on discrimination, nor can the employer terminate an employee in retaliation for their participation in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 protects employees over the age of 40 from being discriminated against based on their age. As such, an employer cannot fire an employee because they are too old for a job.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970 ensures employees are able to work in a workplace free from health and safety hazards. An employer cannot terminate an employee for filing a complaint with the Occupational Safe and Health Administration (OSHA), for requesting a safety inspection, or for being party to an investigation or lawsuit.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 prohibits employers from terminating employees due to pregnancy, childbirth, or childbirth-related healthcare matters. Additionally, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 allows employees who have been with the company for at least one year to receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal medical or family-related issues, including maternity leave. An employer therefore cannot fire an employee for using FMLA for qualified circumstances.

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) of 1988 prohibits employers from performing lie-detector tests on employees (although federal, state, and local government-jobs do not apply). As such, an employer cannot fire an employee for failing a lie-detector test.

Lastly, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits employers for terminating an employee due to a disability. Employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with a disability, and an employee cannot be terminated for requesting reasonable accommodations.

Termination in Violation of a State Statute that Prohibits Discrimination or Retaliation

In addition to those ten federal statutes, employers are also bound by state law regarding discrimination and retaliation. Overall the statutes are relatively similar—the only distinction is that by terminating an employee due to discrimination or retaliation covered by state legislation, an employer would be in violation of federal and state law. Arizona state laws impacting this matter include:

Wrongful Termination Under Select Circumstances

An employee has the right to sue their employer for wrongful termination if they were fired for any of the following protected activities:

  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in violating the law
  • Complaining to a manager (in good faith) that the employer is breaking the law
  • Exercising rights protected by worker’s compensation laws
  • Jury duty
  • Exercising voting rights
  • Exercising free choice regarding membership with a labor organization
  • Serving in the armed forces or national guard
  • Choosing to forego fees or gratuities that are a condition of employment
  • Choosing to purchase goods and services from any particular person or provider when terms of employment dictate otherwise
  • Attending court proceedings in which the employee is a victim

Wrongful termination lawsuits can be extremely complicated matters, so it’s always best to consult with a qualified employment-law attorney before taking action. An attorney can help you determine which laws were broken, launch an investigation, gather evidence, and present a case against the employer.

Public Employees Who Have the Right to Continued Employment Under the Law

Certain public employees have the right to continued employment under federal, state, or local statutes. An employer cannot terminate public employees who qualify for continued employment with the agency.

Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?

The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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