Right to Work Laws: What Employers Need to Know

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Jan 11, 2023
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The phrase “right-to-work” is thrown around quite frequently, and not just in employment law practices or large human resources departments. Whether or not you operate in a right-to-work state will affect your business, no matter how large or how small it is.

That’s why, even if you have just one employee, you should understand the implications of your state’s right-to-work laws. Here's what the phrase “right-to-work” means and the basics of what employers should know about right to work laws. 

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What is a Right-to-Work State? 

The phrase “right-to-work” describes a set of employment laws enacted in various states, all of which share a common theme. This theme generally encapsulates a few key ideas designed to protect both workers and their employers. In summary, right-to-work laws can be boiled down to the following: 

  • Employees have the ability to decide whether or not they want to join a labor union.
  • Contracts that mandate union membership for obtaining or keeping a job are prohibited
  • Employees have the ability to decide whether or not they want to pay union membership dues in exchange for certain benefits.
  • Employees who do not belong to a union may still receive many of the protections and rights gained through union collective bargaining processes, even if they do not pay union dues.

Some states are referred to as “right-to-work" states, meaning they have enacted right-to-work laws enforcing the above tenets. In a right-to-work state, employers must treat union and non-union employees equally in terms of the conditions of their employment.

This means that businesses cannot offer union employees more (or more impressive) benefits than their non-union counterparts, or vice versa. 

Currently, there are no federal right-to-work laws. This means each state gets to choose for itself whether it will enact such laws. Currently, 27 states (and Guam) have right-to-work laws in place. 

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Right-to-Work States 

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Are “At-Will Employment” and “Right-to-Work” the Same Concepts? 

No, the concepts of at-will employment and the right to work are not the same. At-will employment is an employer-friendly legal doctrine allowing employers to hire and terminate an employee "at will."

At-will translates to a hire or termination for any reason, or for no reason at all, so long as the reason isn't related to one of the federally protected traits, such as race, religion, sex, ethnicity, genetic information or certain other characteristics. 

Many legal scholars argue that right-to-work laws represent another employer-friendly legal doctrine, but of course, there are arguments on both sides of the issue. Operating a business in a right-to-work state will not affect the status of your workers’ at-will employment.

If, however, your employees belong to a union, you will likely need to abide by the rules of the union contract—which can contradict (and will probably supersede) the principle of at-will employment. 

For example, if your union-member employees’ union contract requires that any termination be made only for just cause, you will need to honor that provision of the contract, despite any at-will laws on the books in your state to the contrary. In this way, the two legal concepts may occasionally be at odds with one another. It’s important to consult with outside counsel or your trusted PEO to understand the unique employment law landscape in the states in which you do business. 

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Is Kansas a Right-to-Work State? 

Yes, Kansas is a right-to-work state. Article 15 of the Kansas Constitution, Section 12, states that employees in the state cannot be denied “the opportunity to obtain or retain employment because of membership or nonmembership in any labor organization.”

In plain terms, this means that (1) Kansas employers are free to hire either union or nonunion workers, and (2) Kansas employers are not permitted to discriminate against an employee based on their union membership (or lack thereof). 

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Is Missouri a Right-to-Work State? 

In 2018, Missouri voters blocked a law passed by the state’s legislature that would have converted Missouri into a right-to-work state. So, despite a very close brush with the legal doctrine, Missouri is currently not a right-to-work state. 

What does this mean for Missouri employers? Like their counterparts in right-to-work states, employees in Missouri are not required to join a union and they cannot be fired for either refusing to join a union or for leaving one.

This point was settled by the Supreme Court in the case of Pattern Makers v. NLRB, 473 U.S. 95 (1985). However, employees can still be forced to pay union fees (but not “dues”) in order to work within the state.

Required fees, sometimes called “agency fees” are supposed to cover the actual cost of the union’s representation of the non-member, non-dues paying worker. Even if none of your Missouri employees are union members, they still may have their employment influenced by the effect of unions, including by way of their employment contracts or in collective bargaining efforts. 

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Stay Ahead of the Curve with the Services of a Trusted PEO

Statewide employment laws, including right-to-work regulations, are always shifting. While many small to mid-sized businesses simply aren’t large enough to stay up to date on ever-changing policies, it doesn’t mean they should go without HR compliance and employee relations expertise.

Consider outsourcing HR functions to an experienced professional employer organization (PEO). Working with a PEO provides your business with access to employee relations and HR experts that can help your company thrive. As a trusted and certified PEO, Axcet HR saves you time, money, worry, and stress, so you can concentrate on growing your core business. 

Do you have questions about right-to-work regulations or your current employee policies? We have answers. Schedule a time to speak with our experienced team today >> 

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