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NOTE - this is strictly hypothetical and I am not asking for legal advice. In the case that I ever do need real legal advice I'll find a real lawyer and pay them for it.

Suppose my employer decides to throw a holiday potluck and mandates participation by employees. Employees are required to bring in a dish to feed so many people. Suppose further that I refuse to participate and, as a result, my employer fires me citing failure to participate in the potluck as the reason.

  1. Am I eligible for unemployment insurance benefits?
  2. Do I have any hope to sue for wrongful termination or anything like that?

Jurisdiction: any US, although if there are notable situations in specific locations in the US I'd love to read about them.

As an aside - this is strictly hypothetical. What's not hypothetical is that I hate workplace potlucks.

Some more information:

  • Salaried exempt (IT)
  • USA, at will, right to work
  • Various tenures at the job

For instance - suppose my employer asked me to bring in $50k or get fired. Would that be "constructive dismissal"? Would it be for a much smaller amount - say $50? If so, would that make any difference at all?

  • If you're "volunteered" for an extra 10 hours or other number such that your average pay rate per hour doing what the employer asks falls below minimum wage, or no longer meet the requirements for "exempt" status, then there may be a labor law violation. But if the salary is high enough (not clarified in the hypothetical) then they can put you to work 50 hours as directed even if it's called "volunteer" or a holiday party. – user662852 Oct 1 '17 at 17:12
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In the State of California, according to California Labor Law section 2802:

  1. (a) An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer, even though unlawful, unless the employee, at the time of obeying the directions, believed them to be unlawful.

Unless you believe participation in a potluck meal is unlawful then, in California, the employer is required to indemnify any expenses you incur in fulfillment of your duties for the employer.

In Stuart v. Radioshack Corporation, the court held that an employer must attempt to reimburse expenses an employee has incurred once the "employer knows or has reason to know the employee has incurred a reimbursable expense." This is regardless of whether or not the employee has actually requested reimbursement.

I didn't research other states but expect that many of them will have similar statutory requirements.

Regarding firing you for failing to participate: For at-will employment, the employer can pretty much fire you for any reason not prohibited by law (age, sex, race, etc.). There is no state or federal law guaranteeing the right to avoid pot luck meals. Though, you may be able to stretch the holiday party guise into something that goes against your religion.

Your employer does not need a reason to fire you, they simply can't fire you for a set of very specific reasons. I am unable to to find "lack of participation in a potluck meal" amongst the prohibited reasons in California.

  • Great answer! What if an employer in California fired an employee for not agreeing to "volunteer" or "donate" their own unreimbursed money? If the employee could prove that was the reason, would the employer be liable(for threatening to break the law, but never actually needing to)? – Patrick87 Feb 5 '16 at 23:23
  • Your comment may do better as another question. My first suggestion is to find another employer. An employer dumb enough to fire someone for this behavior, specifically, may be dumb enough to create an evidence trail for a successful wrongful-termination lawsuit. On the other hand, an employee who is difficult about pot-luck meals may have a tendency to demonstrate difficulties about other job-related issues. Employer-employee relationships are rarely a one-way street and, if either side is unhappy, separation is usually a win-win. – Dave D Feb 5 '16 at 23:56

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