Terminating an employee is never fun and not something that most people want to do or look forward to doing, but when that employee is also pregnant, older, or injured then the risks are much higher. Doctors and their teams, working side by side, usually function as a close-knit unit. Having to fire a team member casts a shadow over the working atmosphere and the daily routines and negatively affects everyone in the practice. Unfortunately, sometimes it just has to be done.
Most states, including California, are at-will states, meaning that (with certain exceptions), employers can fire employees for any reason or for no reason at all – as long as it is not for an illegal reason. Even so, to protect against discrimination claims, it’s a best practice to only fire an employee when you have a clear, legitimate, and well-documented business reason for doing so.
You should take steps to protect yourself whenever you fire an employee in any circumstances. That’s even more important when the employee has specific legal protections against wrongful termination, such as an employee who is pregnant, is 40 years or older, or was injured on the job.
Sometimes, employers think they can never fire a pregnant, over 40, or injured-on-the-job employee. However, that’s a misconception. As an employer, you can fire a pregnant employee as long as you are not firing her because she is pregnant or because she has asserted any of her legal rights associated with her pregnancy. The same is true for workers who are older, injured, or in any other legally protected class.
You do need to be careful, though, and make sure you are not discriminating against the employee because of their pregnancy, age, or injury. As a best practice, you should be careful not to even give the appearance that you might be discriminating.
Pregnant employees may have legal protections under federal, state, and local laws.
Federal law applies if you have 15 or more employees. In addition to making it illegal to fire an employee because she is pregnant, it is also illegal to discriminate in any other way because of her pregnancy.
Under federal law, a pregnant employee who is temporarily disabled because of her pregnancy must be treated the same way you would treat an employee who is temporarily disabled for any other reason. You also may be required under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide reasonable accommodations for a pregnant employee.
Even if your practice has fewer than 15 employees and is not subject to federal pregnancy anti-discrimination laws, you are probably covered by similar or stronger state laws. California, for example, provides strong anti-discrimination protections for pregnant employees, including providing a pregnancy disability leave of up to four months when the employee’s healthcare provider determines that it’s necessary. The employee can require you to give her a written guarantee that she can return after her leave to the same or a comparable job.
If you need to fire a pregnant employee, you should make sure that you don’t violate any of these laws or any other laws that protect pregnant workers, and that you don’t retaliate against a pregnant employee because she asserted her legal rights.
The employment law attorneys at Dental & Medical Counsel are available to advise you on the laws that apply to pregnant employees in your practice and help you avoid making mistakes that could result in costly anti-discrimination claims or lawsuits.
Similarly to the way that pregnant employees may be protected by federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws, workers who are 40 years or older may also be protected by multiple levels of laws against age discrimination.
California’s laws against age discrimination provide more protection for older employees than federal laws do, and they apply to all employers within California that have five or more employees.
If you need to fire an employee who is 40 or older, make sure that you have legitimate business reasons that are not age-related. Dental & Medical Counsel lawyers are available to help.
It’s illegal to fire an employee in retaliation for their receiving or applying for Workers’ Compensation Benefits. However, when and whether you can fire an employee because their injuries prevent them from doing their jobs is a more complicated question, and the law varies by state. Also, you can fire someone for a legitimate business reason not related to their injury.
Make sure to document your reasons for terminating the employee. An employment lawyer can help you understand and comply with the laws of your state.
The best way to avoid a wrongful termination claim is to be prepared in advance. Ideally, preparation should start at the beginning of the employment cycle with an employee manual that puts down in writing all your practice’s policies and procedures. Our sister company, HR for Health, provides software that makes it easy to create a thorough employee handbook that is updated and in compliance with all applicable laws.
If you start to have problems with an employee, take written notes to document the issues every time a problem arises. Be clear about what policies and procedures they are violating.
Train your managers to treat everyone fairly, and let all your employees know that discrimination will not be tolerated in your practice.
The stakes are high. If a fired employee believes they were discriminated against, they can file a wrongful termination claim or lawsuit that will be expensive, stressful, and time-consuming for you to deal with. Their dissatisfaction may spread throughout your staff and might even impact your reputation in the community.
Being careful to act in a non-discriminatory way is not only required by law, but it is also the right thing to do – and it is good for your practice. Most people understand that employees sometimes don’t work out and have to be let go. But you may damage your relationships with staff and even patients if they believe you fired an employee because the employee was pregnant, 40 or older, or receiving Workers’ Compensation.
The Dental & Medical Counsel lawyers work exclusively with medical, dental, optometry, and veterinary practices. We can help you set up and implement policies that make your expectations of employees clear to help avoid any problems down the road. If you do have an employee who you need to terminate, we can help you get prepared to do it the right way. Our goal is to help you protect yourself from any claims of unlawful termination, keep the morale of your other staff members high, and avoid disruptions to the normal flow of your practice.
At Dental & Medical Counsel, PC, we understand dentists have trouble navigating the legal process. We believe every dentist deserves the best advice and service so doctors can do what they do best, treat their patients. We make dentists' lives easier by providing expert guidance, so they can focus on their personal and professional aspirations.
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