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Employment Issues

There are a plethora of laws regarding the relationship between an employer and employee, which create a minefield of potential problems for the small business owner.

Over the past twenty years, one of the areas of law that has seen the most dramatic changes is in the field of employment law. New laws have been adopted which prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, sex, or handicaps have augmented previously existing laws intended to prevent discrimination due to race. Too many laws to mention in this brief article have been passed regarding health insurance and pension plans and the term "wrongful discharge" has taken on new and different meanings.

All employers are expected to navigate within this minefield and conduct business in a profitable manner. It is definitely much too difficult for most small employers to deal with and understand. Most often this office is presented with problems after the fact and, in many instances, too late to avoid liability on the part of an employer. However, there are some basic rules which can protect Illinois employers from wrongful discharge claims.

The general rule is that an employer of an "at will" employee can discharge that employee for a good reason or no reason at all. There are numerous "bad" reasons" for which an employer can be held liable for damages. There are three general categories for which an employer can suffer liability for monetary damages for a wrongful discharge: (1) contract; (2) tort; or (3) discrimination.

Under contract claims, an employee and an employer have entered into a form of an employment contract (which may include a collective bargaining agreement). However, employers may not be aware that in 1987 the Illinois Supreme Court recognized that in some instances an employee handbook or manual may create a contractual relationship with an at-will employee. Employers must be cautioned that their employee policy manual may affect the ability of an employer to terminate or discipline an employee.

There are cases in Illinois in which an employer can be held liable in tort for discharging an employee. The classic case under this area of law involves an employee who sued Motorola when the employee was fired after she had filed a workers' compensation claim.

The most potentially dangerous area for employer liability is with employment discrimination. Federal, State and County governments have adopted laws which prohibit certain types of discrimination by employers against existing employees or potential employees. Employers are prohibited from discrimination based on race, religion, age, sex, handicap or national origin. The first laws in this area were passed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (remember Lyndon Johnson's Great Society) and expanded upon with the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Illinois, not to be upstaged by the Feds, adopted the Illinois Human Rights Act. And these laws are further complicated by the Cook County Civil Rights Act and the City of Chicago Human Rights Act. It's enough to make any employer scared silly.

Some smaller employers may believe that these laws do not apply to them. Generally, the Civil Rights Act only applies to employers with more than 15 employees. Until last year, this was also true of the Illinois Human Rights Act. However, last year the Human Rights Act was amended and now claims of discrimination can be filed against any Illinois Employer regardless of the number of employees.

Smaller employers should be cautioned that every employment situation is a minefield. If you believe that there is a problem with an employee or between employees, employers should consult with their attorney before taking any measures. For more information contact George Bellas at 847.823.9030 Ext: 219 or george@bellas-wachowski.com.