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When does mistreatment at work become unlawful in Oregon?

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Answered by: Randy J. Harvey

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If you are being harassed or discriminated against at work, or were unfairly terminated, you may wonder whether you can bring a legal action to challenge it. But a lot of bad behavior by bosses or coworkers is not illegal. And in Oregon, as in most states, employment is considered at will, which means someone can be fired for any reason or no reason, just not an illegal reason.

Even with at-will employment, however, you can’t be fired or subjected to adverse actions on the job for a reason that violates public policy protections in the law. If you can show a connection between a protected status and the firing or adverse action, you may have cause for legal action. An “adverse action” is an adverse change in the terms and conditions of your employment which includes things like job loss, position reassignment, demotion, discipline and these kinds of negative acts by the employer.

What is a protected class?

The classifications for protected status are a matter of both federal law and state law. At the federal law, they involve laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In Oregon, protected classifications are broadly defined. They include race, religion, national origin, sex (extending to pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), veteran status, physical or mental disability, and prohibitions on genetic screening. Oregon law also has protections for whistleblowers and those who advocate for employment rights.

To assert a legal claim, you must show a reasonable inference that there is a connection between a protected status and wrongful termination or negative employer conduct.

What forms can negative job action by employers take?

Getting terminated wrongfully is the most obvious example of unjustified employer conduct. But there are many other ways in which an employer’s action can negatively affect you as a worker.

In many cases, these negative actions may be in retaliation for your making a complaint about sexual harassment, wage and hour violations, discrimination or other issues.

The negative job actions can include:

  • False accusations of misconduct
  • Negative performance reviews
  • Being demoted or failing to get promoted
  • Receiving bad or reduced work hours
  • Creating a hostile work environment

If you can show a connection between actions such as these and your protected classification, you may have a cause of action against your employer.

How do legal claims get resolved?

Most employment law cases are resolved without going to trial. Often this means using medication or arbitration to clarify the issues and work out a financial settlement.

If you are still working for your employer, it may even be possible to get an injunction to put a stop to prohibited conduct. You can also file a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If you work for a public employer like a municipality, in public education, or for a city, county, state or federal agency, you are required to give a Government Claims Notice, referred to as a Tort Claim Notice, within 180 days of the event raising your claim.

To be sure, the law provides no guarantees against bad bosses. We all have to put up with a lot at work. But if your employer (or ex-employer) has mistreated you, a knowledgeable attorney can help you identify when this may have crossed the line into unlawful activity.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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