Are federal employees at-will employees? The simple answer to this question is “no.”
Every federal employee receives due process rights and may be fired only for cause.
However, there are periodic efforts within Congress to make all federal employees at-will employees, so it’s worth discussing the concept of at-will employment.
We’ll also review the basics of federal employment and the rights that virtually all federal employees have.
If you are a federal employee or are applying for a federal position, contact us to learn more about federal employment. We can help answer any questions about your rights as a federal employee.
What Are At-Will Employees?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at-will employment “means that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability.”
Employers cannot fire at-will employees for discriminatory reasons, like the employee’s race, sex, or religion.
However, the employer can use just about any other reason to fire the employee. Technically, the employer need not have any reason at all for firing an at-will employee.
Understanding the Basic Rights of Federal Employment
Fortunately, federal employees have extensive protections against arbitrary terminations. The vast majority of federal workers have a right to due process.
Specifically, federal employees have to receive the following rights when they face discipline:
- An advance written notice that states specific reasons for the disciplinary action;
- A reasonable time (at least five days) to respond orally or in writing;
- The right to provide affidavits or other supporting documentation in their response;
- The right to be represented (by a friend, family member, attorney, etc.); and
- A written decision about the proposed disciplinary action that includes specific reasons for the final outcome.
Employees receive more rights if their employer proposes a suspension greater than 14 days, a demotion, or a removal.
In those situations, federal employees need to have at least 30 days advance notice and the right to appeal the decision.
Employees may appeal major disciplinary actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal agency designed to “promote an effective Federal workforce.”
An MSPB appeal guarantees the employee the opportunity to argue their case before a federal administrative judge.
Employees may also present favorable evidence, call supporting witnesses, and cross-examine agency witnesses.
Why Are Federal Employees Not At-Will?
The answer to this lies in the history of our country. The founding fathers understood it was vital to have an independent federal workforce.
Otherwise, federal employees could be hired and fired for purely political reasons. There were several times in American history when civil servants were hired and fired for their political views.
In the late 1800s, ordinary citizens frequently expected to get federal jobs by working for a presidential candidate.
The problems of this “spoils system” soon became obvious. In 1881, President Garfield was killed by a disgruntled supporter named Charles Guiteau.
Guiteau had demanded a job at the American embassy in Paris for making a speech for President Garfield during his campaign for president.
When he failed to receive a position, he decided to take matters into his own hands. The shocking assassination prompted Garfield’s successor to sign the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1883.
The CSRA helped create an independent civil service by requiring federal agencies to fire employees only for cause.
How Can Federal Employees Be Fired?
Unlike at-will employees, a federal agency may fire a federal employee only for certain reasons. Common reasons for termination include:
- Being absent without official leave (AWOL),
- Failure to successfully perform a Performance Improvement Plan,
- Abuse of government vehicles or government property,
- Sexual harassment against other employees,
- Engaging in partisan political activity on the job, and
- Violations of federal ethics regulations.
These are only a few examples. However, agencies can fire federal employees for only specific kinds of misconduct or poor performance. Arbitrary reasons, even if they are not discriminatory, do not suffice.
We Can Help Answer Your Federal Employment Questions
Now that you understand the basics of federal employment, you might have other questions about working for the federal government.
Whatever your question or concern, we are happy to answer it. In addition, we can represent you if your rights as a federal employee are under attack by your agency.
Today, it is easier than ever to find a federal employment attorney. However, it’s critical to pick the right attorney.
To protect your federal employment rights, you need a federal employment attorney with many years of experience and a track record of success.
Here at the Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing, PLLC, our federal employment attorneys have several decades of collective experience representing federal employees.
We’ve helped our clients with every aspect of federal employment, including MSPB hearings, disability retirement, and whistleblower retaliation.
Whatever federal employment legal needs you have, we can help you solve them.