Hamilton Shouldn’t Have to Settle for At-will Employment
As returning students of Hamilton gather once more to usher in the start of the semester, the hill’s atmosphere is noticeably tense, with one subject quickly overshadowing the usual summer celebratory talk – the dismissal of College Chaplain Jeff McArn. To the public and College community, McArn’s firing was shocking, sudden, and, as of publishing, without sufficient explanation. Yet, while Hamilton’s decision to let go of McArn was unexpected, the College’s method to do so is painfully common in today’s job market.
When casually speaking to students, faculty, and staff, I kept being asked the same set of questions:
“How is it possible for them [Hamilton College] to do this?”
“Doesn’t he [Jeff McArn] have any protections?”
“Is this even legal?”
The answers to these alarmed questions all link back to the same legal concept employers, including Hamilton College, use liberally, and that has surrounded American labor relations for over a century: At-will employment.
At-will employment is generally defined as the ability of an employer to terminate an employee at any time, for any non-discriminatory reason, or even without stating a reason. Unless your contract states otherwise, you could be working somewhere one day and fired the very next without being offered an explanation. While the practice is normal within almost every state apart from Montana, the United States as a whole is actually the only major country not to require businesses to provide a cause for termination.
Employers often champion at-will employment as allowing “freedom” and “flexibility” for workers to choose which jobs they want and for how long. Ironically though, this sentiment doesn’t stop companies like ThedaCare from suing employees who do decide to exercise their “freedom” when they quit to seek better opportunities. Instead, the main reason why at-will exists is to widen the power imbalance between employer and employee, dynamics that can be traced back to servants and masters in medieval times.
That is not to say there have not been attempts at reform. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 offered protections against discriminatory firings based on ethnicity, religion, gender, or nationality, which was later expanded to include age in 1967. Additionally, employees are protected when engaged in certain actions such as medical leave or union organizing.
More recently, legislators in New York, both at the city and state levels, have introduced bills that would effectively put an end to at-will employment as we know it, mandating explicit causes for dismissal and additional protections for workers. Although the passage of either of these bills is unlikely, it is a sign of a sea change in New York to even the balance between businesses and their workers.
As for what the discussion surrounding at-will employment means for Hamilton College specifically is still uncertain. What is clear is that several members of the community, including to an extent Dean Chris Card, were dissatisfied with the manner Jeff McArn was terminated. Now it's up to Hamilton’s community, from its students and faculty, to take that discontent and put it towards addressing how Hamilton moves forward.