Attention Grads: Working could be dangerous to your health!

Read it here.

It’s June at last. Winter is finally in the rear view mirror (the snow didn’t clear out of my yard until April 22).  Memorial Day already has come and gone. The forsythia has bloomed. I’ve fired up the barbecue a few times in between the raindrops. Caught a few Sea Dogs games. Even managed to play a few rounds of golf.

But for me, this time of year is always associated with one thing. Graduation. One of my daughters is graduating from high school. You probably have a graduate somewhere in your family, too. There are ceremonies to attend, speakers who will drone on, and the future to think about.

Which is why I think the movie “The Graduate” is so memorable, even some 40 years after its release. It’s the one where Dustin Hoffman has just graduated from college, doesn’t know what to do with his life, and needs to find a job. The one where Mr. Robinson whispers to Benjamin at his graduation party, “I’ve got one word for you. ‘Plastics.’”

You don’t know me, so I didn’t get to attend your graduation party. But if I had, and you were about to join the workforce, I wouldn’t be whispering “Plastics” in your ear. That’s so 60’s. Rather, after offering my congratulations and wishing you good luck, the words I would whisper to you would be “at will.”

Why “at will?” Because if you are entering the workforce, taking on your first real job, then “at will” are two important words you need to know. If your employer provided you with an employee handbook, and gave you the time to read it, and you actually did so (right!), those two words “at will” are probably somewhere in there. Often even on the first page, in the introduction.

So what the “h” “e” ”double toothpicks” is “at will?” (I try not to swear in my blog).  “At will” is a small phrase, but those six letters pack a lot of punch on the job.  “At will” means that in most cases your employer can fire you for just about any reason. For good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.

You see, contrary to what you would think, here in Maine—in fact, in most places across this county except Montana (Montana???)—you don’t have any real rights on the job. Zero. None. Zippo.

Unless you are covered by a union contract (only about 11% of the overall workforce these days; excluding public employees, just under 7% are covered), or have a contract of employment (generally reserved for big shot executives and doctors, not recent graduates), you are an “at will” employee. Unless you can prove that you were fired for some protected characteristic or conduct—race, age, sex, religion, national orientation, disability, sexual orientation, or whistleblower activity—an employer can discharge, discipline, or lay you off whenever it wants.

Hopefully that won’t happen to you. But unlike in my parents’ generation, most of us are destined to change jobs ten to fifteen times over the course of our career. In fact, I just left my job after 26 years.

Blame it on the global economy. Blame it on the unions. Blame it on the lack of unions. Blame it on the stock market.   But the reality is, there’s no such thing as job security any more, whether you’re a blue collar worker in a Maine town going to work at the local paper mill, a shipbuilder, a health care provider, or a white collar employee at one of the large banks or insurance companies in town.

Which means that if and when your job does come to an end, or you get a new s-o-b boss (like I said, I don’t swear in my blog) who brings you to tears, you may be picking up the phone to give me a call. And if and when you do, I will try to help you. But I won’t sweet talk you. And if I can’t help you, that’s probably when I’ll whisper those not so sweet words, “at will.”

Today marks the start of my new blog on the Portland Press Herald website “On the Job: Your Maine Rights at Work.” Together with my friend and colleague Carol Garvan and on occasion other attorneys at Johnson, Webbert & Young, we’ll post twice a week on topics related to work here in Maine and developments on the job around the US and elsewhere that could be headed this way in the future. We’ll remember important events that, even though not always work-related, have changed today’s workplace. We’ll present a perspective that isn’t always found in the business section—or any other section—of the newspaper; the view of the working man and woman.

We invite you to comment, to have a dialogue with us, to tell us why you agree or disagree. We look forward to hearing from you. And hopefully we will never need to tell you that you are “at will.”