In Pennsylvania, employment is presumed to be at-will, meaning employers can terminate workers for any legal reason or no reason at all.
There is one exception, however. The so-called public policy exception provides protection from termination if an employee files a workers’ compensation claim. That now includes workers who inform their employer they intend to file workers’ compensation claims based on a workplace injury. Actual filing is not required.
Recent case: Bruce was working on a crew cleaning sludge from oil and gas equipment when he was sprayed in the mouth with some of the dirt. He went home vomiting and then went to the emergency room. There, a doctor ran tests to see if he might have been exposed to radon and other toxins.
Shortly after returning to work, Bruce was placed on what he considered undesirable work assignments. He was terminated shortly after.
Bruce sued, alleging that he had told his supervisors and the hospital that he had suffered a workplace injury and intended to file a workers’ compensation claim.
The court said that if Bruce could show he had indeed informed his employer he intended to file for workers’ comp, he would no longer be subject to discharge as an at-will employee and could sue for retaliation.
However, he had no proof that he actually had told supervisors or anyone else about his intent. Therefore he wasn’t protected from discharge. (Runion v. Equipment Transport, MD PA, 2017)
Final note: The employer also had disciplinary documents that supported the discharge, so even if Bruce could have proved he told the company he intended to apply for workers’ comp benefits, the employer would have had a valid business defense for firing him. Plus, it also documented that a business slowdown contributed to the decision to terminate.