In an Opinion article in the Financial Times, nearly half of American workers say they have lost a job for a bad reason or no reason at all: they may have complained about parental leave policies, volunteered at an unpopular charity or simply worn the wrong hairstyle.
All of these firings are basically legal. Unlike most developed economies, the majority of US employment is “at will”.
Bosses do not have to give a warning before dismissal. Companies take full advantage of this flexibility: in the first 10 weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 40m people, nearly one-quarter of the US workforce, were let go.
Now New York City is trying to change this precarious situation. Starting this week, fast-food companies with at least 30 outlets nationwide must show they have “just cause”, defined as objective operational or conduct-related reasons, for shedding staff.
Shifting to just cause firing would reduce workplace tensions in an industry rife with harassment and discrimination claims. McDonalds alone is fending off multiple class action lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and a hostile environment.
At a time when employers are struggling to fill open jobs, a smart company would make stable working conditions a point of differentiation. Amazon started offering a $15 minimum wage even though the federal standard is just half that. Now its competitors are having to match it to attract staff. Fairer firing rules are a lot cheaper to implement. There’s a lesson there.