Frequently Asked Employment Law Questions

Can an employer fire an employee for no reason?

In most cases, yes. Generally speaking, Maine is an at-will employment state. That means an employer does not need a reason to fire an employee. So, an employer can fire an employee for the wrong or a mistaken reason without incurring liability.

However, if there is a contract between the employer and employee that restricts the employer’s ability to fire the employee, then the employer would need to follow the contract. The contract could be in the form of a written agreement signed by the employer and employee, or it could be set forth in the employee handbook in the form of a progressive discipline policy. Additionally, state and municipal employees have certain protections before being fired.

Even if an employee is considered at-will, an employer cannot fire that employee for an illegal reason. State and federal laws prohibit termination based on race, sex, disability, whistleblower activities, and other reasons. Employees who believe they have been terminated for such a reason may file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There are very strict time limits for filing claims with the Maine Human Rights Commission or the EEOC.

When must an employer pay overtime to an employee?

The U.S. Department of Labor promulgated new overtime rules that apply to employees which were scheduled to go into effect December 1, 2016. A Federal Court judge recently entered an injunction placing those rules on hold.
If the new regulations become effective, salaried employees who earn less than $47,476 a week would be entitled to receive overtime pay if they work more than forty hours in any given week. This means that employers should track and manage how many hours salaried employees work each week. Employers can limit their overtime liability by sending workers home when they approach the forty-hour threshold, or they can simply pay time-and–a-half for the time each employee works over forty hours. Failure to pay closely monitor how much time these salaried employees work and pay overtime wages can result in substantial penalties for an employer.
Until there is a final ruling on the applicability of these regulations, employers should follow these developments closely.

When can an employee see the contents of their employment file?

An employee can see the contents of his or her employment file at any reasonable time during ordinary working hours. In addition, an employee may request a copy of his or her file, and the employer must provide a copy within ten days of any written request. The employee may receive one copy without cost each year.
An employment file should contain any and all documentation relating to the employee’s employment, including, but not limited to, any and all evaluations of the employee’s performance. Records of hours worked by employees paid an hourly rate must also be maintained by the employer. Employers may also maintain some employment-related medical information, but federal privacy laws require that medical information be segregated from general employment information.

What can an employer ask about the medical or physical condition of an employee?

Employers can ask about medical or physical conditions only under certain limited circumstances. An employer may not ask a job applicant about their medical or physical condition before they are offered a position. If the employer makes a job offer, the employee may be asked if they have any condition which may interfere with the essential requirements of the job. If so, the employer is obligated to make reasonable attempts to accommodate that condition. Similarly, if an existing employee develops a condition that limits his or her ability to do their job, or if it becomes obvious to the employer that they have such limitations, the employer must attempt to accommodate those limitations. The employer may request information from the employee and his or her medical providers to verify the employee’s condition and to attempt to reach an accommodation. Any medical information requested must be limited to the specific condition which limits the employee’s ability to do the job.
Psychological conditions are treated the same as medical or physical conditions.

When is an employee entitled to receive unemployment benefits?

Unemployed individuals who worked for a covered employer may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits after he or she has lost his or her job. To be eligible for unemployment benefits, the individual must have sufficient qualifying wages spread over a minimum of two calendar quarters. The amount that an unemployed individual would be qualified to receive is based on his or her earnings during a set period prior to the separation from employment.
Even if an unemployed individual has sufficient qualifying wages, he or she may be denied unemployment if he or she was discharged or fired for misconduct; voluntarily quit without good cause attributable to the employment; is not able and available for full-time work; and for other reasons.

Someone just called for a reference for a former employee. What can I tell them?

The law protects an employer who, in good faith, gives a fair and honest evaluation of a former employee. So, as long as the statements about the former employee are based on statements of fact, the employer can give an honest appraisal of the former employee and his or her time with the employer. An employer cannot lie or make false statements about the former employee, which may be defamation.
To avoid approaching the line of making defamatory comments about a former employee and making statements that cannot be verified as factual, an employer may consider giving a reference for the former employee is that brief and limited to provable facts. Sometimes, the less said, the better.