A New Challenge to "At-Will" Employment for Health Care Workers

Thursday, 19 November 2015 22:13 Written by  Patricia Collins


In Roman v. McGuire Memorial, the Pennsylvania Superior Court announced a new basis for challenging terminations of at-will employees.  While Pennsylvania law has always recognized a “public policy” exception to at-will employment, the case law has limited that exception.  Roman expands the exception to include terminations of health-care workers who refuse to work mandatory overtime.
 
Roman worked as a direct care worker, subject to McGuire Memorial’s mandatory overtime requirement.  She was an at-will employee.  The mandatory overtime policy allowed for termination of employees who refused to work mandatory overtime on four occasions. McGuire terminated Roman’s employment after her (disputed) fourth refusal, and Roman sued for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  After a nonjury trial, the trial court found in Roman’s favor, awarded her $121,869.93 in back pay and lost benefits, and ordered reinstatement to her former position.
 
Relevant to the dispute is Pennsylvania’s Prohibition of Excessive Overtime Act (43 P.S. § 932.1 et seq.).  The Act prohibits a health care facility from requiring employees to work in excess of an “agreed to or previously determined and regularly scheduled daily work shift.”  43 P.S. § 932.3(a)(1).  Further, the Act prohibits retaliation against an employee who refuses to accept work in excess of those limitations.  43 P.S. § 932.3(b).  The Act does not provide for a remedy for employees terminated in violation of its requirements.  It does contemplate a regulatory scheme to address complaints by employees, but those regulations are not yet final.
 
The Superior Court held that the Act established a public policy that healthcare facilities should not require its direct care workers to work overtime hours, and, as such, Roman’s termination for refusing to work overtime hours amounted to wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  Further, the Court distinguished cases in which it had refused to recognize a public policy exception to the at-will doctrine because a statute had already created a remedial scheme to address violations of the particular policy identified in that statute, such as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.  In the case of the Prohibition of Excessive Overtime in Health Care Act, there existed no remedial scheme to address the wrong.
 
The Superior Court has thus used The Act to identify a new public policy exception to the at-will doctrine.  Health care entities should be mindful of this exception in creating and enforcing overtime policies for direct care workers. 

Patricia Collins

Patricia Collins

Patty has been practicing law since 1996 in the areas of Employment Law, Health Care and Litigation, with extensive experience in advising employers and health care providers as well as complex litigation in federal and state courts. Patty’s knowledge of employment law includes the Employee Retirement Income Security Act; federal and state employment discrimination laws, and employment contracts and wage claims.

To view Patricia Collins' full profile, click here.

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