By Barbara Fritsche
In Illinois, unless you have a contract with your employer, you are an employee at will. Basically, that means that your employment may be terminated by your employer for any reason or no reason. However, there are several exceptions. You may not be terminated because of your sex, race, national origin, age, disability, religion, or any other classification protected under federal or state law. If your employer terminates your employment because of one of these protected classifications, you may file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both of these administrative bodies have limitations concerning the time period within which you must file. Therefore, it is important that you file a complaint promptly if you believe you were terminated because of discrimination. Furthermore, you may not be terminated because you exercised your rights under the Workers Compensation laws. In other words, your employer may not fire you because you filed a claim for your work-related injuries. In addition, there are certain social policies recognized in the State of Illinois which employers may not violate. For example, if you report your employer to the police because of criminal violations, you may not be terminated because you reported your employer. If your employer terminates you because you exercised these rights, you may file an action in Court for retaliatory discharge.
In the event you are terminated from your employment, under the Illinois Personnel Record Review Act, it is your right to ask for a copy of your personnel file, unless your employer has less than five employees. Put your request in writing, date and sign your request. Your employer has seven work days to provide you access to your personnel file. In some cases, your employer may have an additional seven working days to comply. You may examine your personnel file and obtain copies, at your expense, of any documents in your file. You may not remove your file from your employer's work site. You are entitled to obtain a copy of your personnel file if you are currently employed, laid off, on a leave of absence, or have been terminated within the preceding year.
There are some records you are not entitled to receive. Those records include letters of reference, test documents, materials relating to staff planning, information of a personal nature about a person other than yourself, records relating to another pending claim between you and your employer, and investigation or security records relating to criminal conduct of you or other activity that could harm the employer unless and until the employer takes adverse action against you based on the information. Should your employer fail to provide you with access to your personnel file, you may file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor.
If you are uncertain as to why you were terminated, ask your employer. Although your employer need not give you a reason for termination, your employer will often provide you with the reason. The reason given to you may help you understand and decide if you should pursue a claim for discrimination, retaliatory discharge or unemployment benefits.
Depending on your circumstances, you may have the right to continue to participate in your employer's group health insurance for several months following your termination. In some cases, your employer may have to pay a portion of the costs of that health insurance continuation under a subsidy plan. It is important that you investigate your rights under your employer's health plan.
Finally, you may apply for unemployment. Normally, you will qualify for unemployment benefits unless you voluntarily resigned or you committed an act of willful misconduct that harmed your employer. In most cases, you should apply for unemployment and let the Illinois Department of Employment Security investigate the matter and determine whether you are eligible.