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By John Hill March 10, 2014

Ken Block says that under a bill before the R.I. legislature, “you’d have to go to court to fire an employee.”

In his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Kenneth Block has been arguing that a big reason why Rhode Island’s economy is stagnant is that the state has too many laws, rules and regulations that increase costs and impede the ability of businesses to rapidly respond to changing conditions.

In a March 2 appearance on WJAR-10’s "News Conference" Block cited as an example  a bill introduced in the General Assembly this session that he said would interfere with an employer’s ability to dismiss employees.

"We had a legislator put in a bill to remove the ability of an employer to fire an employee, it’d end up in court, you’d have to go to court to fire an employee," he said.

We wanted to see if Block had just cause to make that claim.

We called Block’s campaign and they promptly identified the proposed legislation, House Bill 7055, introduced in January by state Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick.

The bill would add language to the state law on employee rights stating that no employee in the state can be fired if the dismissal is against "an explicit, well established public policy of the state" or if the employee "has an implied contractual right to employment."

Those phrases are significant because, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Rhode Island is one of only three states (Florida and Georgia are the other two) that are known as "at-will" employment states.

"‘At will’ means an employee can be discharged at any time, for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all," said Michael J. Yelnosky, dean of the Roger Williams University Law School and an employment law specialist. He said the only limit on ability to fire is if the reason is explicitly against the law, such a racial discrimination.

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He said Shekarchi’s bill wouldn’t prevent an employer from firing an employee. What it would do, he said, is give a dismissed employee two possible arguments that could be used in a subsequent lawsuit to overturn the firing.

An employee might claim he was fired because he refused to do something that was against the law. Or, he might argue there was an implied contract, if, for example, the employer had repeatedly promised the employee he’d always have a job, Yelnosky said.

In other words, the bill would make it easier for a fired employee to file a lawsuit to try to get his job back.

We contacted Block’s campaign and they referred us to a Jan. 16 news release Block issued on Shekarchi’s bill. In that statement, Block said if the bill passed "it would give every terminated employee the opportunity to claim that he or she had an implied contractual right to keep the job."

Block campaign policy director Matthew Schweich said the March 2  "News Conference" statement was "a simplified version of the original statement."

Not exactly. On "News Conference,"  Block said an employer would have to go to court to fire an employee. And that’s just not true. Nothing in the bill prevents a firing or requires an employer to get preliminary judicial approval. If Block had stuck to his better-worded news release, he’d have been right.

We rule Block’s statement False.

(Correction: Matthew Schweich is the policy director for the Block campaign. The initial version of this item incorrectly identified him as the campaign manager.)

Our Sources

Rhode Island General Assembly, House Bill 7055, An Act Relating to Labor Relations _ Employment-at-Will Exceptions. Acessed Mar. 5, 2014

National Conference of State Legislatures, Employment-At-Will Exceptions by State, accessed Mar. 5, 2014

Interview, Michael J. Yelnosky, dean, Roger Williams University Law School,  Mar. 5, 2014

Email, Matt Schweich, campaign manager, Block for Governor, Mar. 7, 2014

Block for Governor, "Block Calls Shekarchi’s ‘contractual right to employment’ bill "possibly the biggest job killer of the session," Jan. 16, 2014, accessed Mar. 7, 2014

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Ken Block says that under a bill before the R.I. legislature, “you’d have to go to court to fire an employee.”

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