Understanding the “Right to Work” in Virginia

right to work laws in virginia

What does it mean to live in a “right to work” state? Many employees confuse “right to work” with “right to a job,” and think that they cannot be fired without being given a reason – but this is not the case. In actuality, “right to work” laws tend to benefit employers rather than employees, despite the name, and so it is important for both employers and employees working in the Commonwealth of Virginia to better understand the term.

What does “Right to Work” mean?

The term, “right to work” has nothing to do with an employee’s entitlement to his or her job. Instead, it references laws that have been passed in many U.S. states that prohibit union security agreements between companies and labor unions. In other words, employees in right to work states cannot be compelled to join a union or to pay union dues, but still may receive the benefits and protections of unions if they work in a unionized environment. This may sound like a protection for employees, since they cannot be forced to pay for union representation that they do not necessarily want. However, the practical effect of right to work laws is to make it harder for unions to exist, since they inevitably have less access to funding. Thus, individuals who support labor unions generally oppose right to work laws, while individuals who want their state to be more attractive to businesses and to employers (and to keep the costs of labor down) generally support right to work laws.

Misconceptions:

Remember, right to work laws have to do with labor unions, not the individual rights of employees regarding their employment. So it is important to keep in mind that working in a right to work state like Virginia does NOT mean that:

  • You have the right to your job
  • Your employer has to provide you a reason for your termination.
  • You have the right to get your job back.
  • You have a legal case (“cause of action”) because you were terminated for no reason.

It is more important to know that Virginia is an “at will employment” state. That means that, unless you have an employment contract that says otherwise, your employer is free to end your employment without warning and without giving any reason. And you too have the right to leave your employment without warning and without giving any reason. Your employment is “at your will” and “at your employer’s will.” And as long as the termination of employment was not for an illegal or discriminatory reason, it does not have to be fair.

What if I am under contract?

If you have an employment contract or agreement with your employer, then the terms of your employment, including the conditions under which you may be terminated, typically are governed by your employment contract. The fact that Virginia is a “right to work” or “at will employment” state is therefore unlikely to impact the terms of your employment.

What if I work for the government?

Government employees may be subject to different rules and protections regarding discipline and termination, but those protections are unlikely to be affected by any right to work laws.

Didn’t we vote in Virginia on this recently?

Yes! But the vote was not about whether or not Virginia should be a right to work state. By statute, Virginia has been a right to work state for several decades. However, in 2016, we voted on whether to incorporate a right to work amendment into our state constitution. The main difference between a statute and a constitutional amendment is that an amendment is more difficult to pass, and, correspondingly, much more difficult to change. The proposed 2016 amendment did not pass in Virginia, and so we remain a right to work state by statute only.

What if I think my employment rights were violated?

As stated above, Virginia does not provide a legal remedy for the simple reason that you were terminated. However, there are numerous federal and state laws that do protect employees from being wrongly terminated for whistleblowing or engaging in protected activity or based on illegal discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation. In addition, employees should be aware of their rights when negotiating severance agreements or seeking unemployment. At Locke and Quinn, we have experience in a variety of employment matters. Please contact our office with any further inquiries about these services.

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Ahmed Rashid
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