It’s been a very interesting year for the job market in Georgia, and you may find yourself considering a change in employment during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, this is a necessary change as their companies downsize. For others, it’s a chance to make a move they’ve been considering for some time, and the current job market is just the catalyst for that change.
In any case, in a volatile market and with the career you’ve worked so hard for at stake, it’s critical that you understand your legal rights. What are you owed when leaving a job and what rights do you have as an employee?
Understanding at-will employment
First and foremost, Georgia is an at-will employment state, which means an employer can end the employment relationship with an employee at any time and for any reason that is not an illegal reason. Most states are at-will, and unless you have an employment contract that says otherwise, the law will presume you are working at the pleasure of your employer.
Accordingly, the Georgia Secretary of State notes that employers have the right to terminate employees at any time and for “good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.” As noted above, the one stipulation is that the cause itself cannot be illegal. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are not allowed to discriminate against workers on the grounds of gender (including sexual harassment), race, religion, color or national origin. More recently, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII also prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Other laws that protect workers include the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits pregnancy discrimination; the Fair Labor Standards Act, which protects breastfeeding workers and insures proper overtime and minimum wage pay; the Family Medical and Leave Act, which provides job protection for serious health conditions of workers or certain family members; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits age discrimination; and the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act, which prohibits discrimination based on genetic information. A termination in violation of any of these laws is illegal. Other than these laws and a few others that come into play much more rarely, employers can generally have any reason for the firing, or they can decline to provide a reason at all.
A two-way street
At-will employment does work in both directions. You may give your employer a two-weeks’ notice if you’d like, and it’s often wise when trying to preserve a work reference for the future. However, you’re not obligated to do so. You have the right to switch jobs whenever you deem best for you and your career. Do note, however, that many companies have a policy that you may not receive any pay for accrued vacation or sick time if you have not provided sufficient notice or have not worked out such notice.
When you do choose to leave, or when your position is terminated, you are owed your final paycheck for all hours worked, including any overtime pay you may be owed. You may also be owed commissions or bonuses, depending on the terms under which these were earned.
Do you keep your retirement fund?
One of your biggest questions may be what happens to your retirement fund or 401(k). This is considered compensation already earned and you are owed those assets on the way out the door. Note, however, that you may forfeit any company contribution to your 401(k) if you leave before your account is fully vested. Otherwise, your 401(k) can be handled in a few different ways.
For instance, for those with $5,000 or more in the account, it’s often possible to do nothing and leave the 401(k) exactly as it is. If you’ve only been with the company for a short time and haven’t yet hit $1,000, they can cut you a check for the money. In that middle ground, with more than $1,000 and under $5,000, the money can be put into an IRA. Be aware that if you pocket money from your 401(k), you are likely to be taxed according to your current tax bracket, so you should always consult with a financial advisor before taking action.
You also have the option to rollover the plan into a new account. This could be a personal IRA or a 401(k) with your new employer. With the proper paperwork, you can do a direct transfer from the old account to the new, meaning you won’t owe additional taxes.
Know your rights
Contractual employees may be owed much more, depending on the specifics of their individual contracts, but you can see that even at-will employees have a lot to consider when switching employers. Make sure you know exactly what your rights and obligations are and what actions to take.
Have any questions?
If you have any questions about your rights or feel you’re entitled to compensation you never received, connect with us ASAP. The sooner you act, the sooner we can provide the answers and guidance you need.