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Checking up here on a question that appeared on workplace.stackexchange.com: Someone signed a contract saying "If you leave the assignment without giving 15 days prior notice you will be liable to pay these days.". This is in the USA in an at-will employment state, which means the employer can fire the employee at any time without notice, and without these terms the employee could quit at any time without notice.

So the question is: In a US state with at-will employment, are contract terms enforceable that say the employee has to pay the employer if they leave without giving notice? (Extra question: Would it be enforceable if the contract just says that the employee has to give 14 days notice, and would it be enforceable if both employer and employee agreed that 14 days notice are required for each side?) Or does the state law that anyone can cancel an employment contract at any time without reason override this?

(Probably should have mentioned: In this case the OP posting on workplace had just started a low-paid job, figured out that for medical reasons she couldn't do it, wanted to quit, and then found this term in the contract. So Inaki's answer is very useful in general, while user662852's answer is most helpful in this particular case).

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    1099 contractor or W2 employee? Near minimum wage or sufficiently compensated to be nonexempt to the Fair Labor Standards Act? – user662852 Nov 9 at 17:19
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    I would think that a way out of this clause is to put in your notice. For the next 15 day show up for your assigned work, but perhaps late and perhaps leave early. While the person is at work, perhaps spend most of their time on the phone. This way they would be forced to terminate. What a horrible clause. – Pete B. Nov 11 at 13:18
  • "OP had just started a low-paid job, figured out that for medical reasons she couldn't do it" Not enough information. Does that mean that she couldn't handle the physical demands of the job (possibly due to her medical circumstances), or that the health insurance/FSA/medical leave policies did not suit her? Was that apparent before she started or not? – smci Nov 11 at 20:05
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are contract terms enforceable that say the employee has to pay the employer if they leave without giving notice?

Yes, as long as the penalization is not of punitive nature. The doctrine of at-will employment is only the default condition, but a contract may supersede it.

As for the extra question, reciprocity of sanctions (as in leaving without notice) is not a requirement for enforceability of a contract. In general, the lack of reciprocity only signals that there is a difference in the parties' bargaining power, but usually that does not affect enforceability.

  • In the UK, employment contracts are only enforceable by employers if the courts consider them to be reasonable. – Ian Ringrose Nov 11 at 15:00
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    @IanRingrose I suspect this "reasonable" limitation is about things that are totally unreasonable, like requiring an employee to relocate to Bermuda if they quit on a Monday. I'm sure UK labour courts agree that adults have to deal with the consequences of their decisions, and if that means providing an adequate notice period (or paying damages specified in a written contract) is completely reasonable. An unreasonable contract would be "give a 15 days notice or pay $10 million". – Ramon Snir Nov 11 at 19:41
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    Depends on your definition of "reasonable". I have seen courts apply the UK style of "reasonable". The question at hand is indeed arguable, i.e. Worth taking to court IMO. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 11 at 23:13
  • @RamonSnir If a UK employer wants a none standard term in a contract to be truely effective at court they have to prove the employee know and understand it before making any commitment to the job, hence it had better be explained well at the interview stage or before. Even then the law is normally on the employee side unless very high salary etc. – Ian Ringrose Nov 11 at 23:54
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The following FLSA guidance explicitly applies to hourly, overtime nonexempt employees. Rules are looser for salaried, overtime exempt employees, executives and commissioned sales.

The Fair Labor Standards Act fact sheet on deductions from pay requires an employee must be paid at least minimum wage for all hours worked in a pay period when there are deductions from pay for things "for the benefit and convenience of the employer" including such charges as cash drawer discrepancies or any other asserted business loss, which I choose to categorize the asserted charge. (If the employer doesn't deduct it from pay, is the plan that they going to sue the quitter? If the quitter is a high salaried or executive, maybe, but for two weeks of an hourly employee, is it worth it in dollar terms and is it worth what it means for morale in the rest of the hourly employee pool?)

Other Items: Employers at times require employees to pay or reimburse the employer for other items. The cost of any items which are considered primarily for the benefit or convenience of the employer would have the same restrictions as apply to reimbursement for uniforms. In other words, no deduction may be made from an employee's wages which would reduce the employee's earnings below the required minimum wage or overtime compensation.

If the penalty to pay rate is such that the terminal pay check pays out at least minimum wage for all hours worked, then it would not fail the FLSA. If the penalty applied means there is a paycheck with a less than minimum wage rate for the hours included, this would violate the FLSA.

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    In the original case that inspired the question, the OP had actually not worked at all yet, so the "final pay check" would be negative. Very useful answer for this case. – gnasher729 Nov 9 at 23:23

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