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We hear from a lot of people who are naturally upset after suddenly getting fired. Many call because they’re wondering if it’s illegal for their employer to fire them without two weeks’ notice. Some ask whether they’re at least entitled to pay for those two weeks. The law on this, for most people, is pretty straightforward.

The majority of employees in Illinois are “at-will” employees, which means that either side can end the employment at any time and for any reason. You can be fired on the spot, and you can quit on the spot. Even if you give them the courtesy of two weeks’ notice when quitting, they can fire you right then. They don’t even need to have a reason. The exception is illegal discrimination. You can’t be fired because of your race, religion, national origin, age (if over 40), etc. If you are fired for one of these reasons, that is illegal.

In some cases, there is an employment contract or union agreement that changes the at-will rule. If there is an agreement in place that obligates your employer to give you notice, then by not doing that they are breaching the contract. You can sue for breach of contract. If you sign a contract when you’re hired, always ask for a copy right then. If you don’t have a copy, there should be one in your employment file, which you have the right to look at.

Even though there is no Illinois or federal law that says you have to give your employer two weeks’ notice when quitting your job, it’s common practice. Legally, you can just leave. But many people want to leave on good terms, especially if they might need a reference for a future job.

When it’s the employer who ends the employment, it can often happen quickly. You may or may not get a severance; the law does not require it. You should, however, get your last paycheck no later than the next regular pay day. Also, if you have earned vacation time that you haven’t used, you should be paid for that time.

If you think you’ve been fired for an illegal reason, such as discrimination, talk to an Illinois employment attorney. The same goes if you have trouble getting the pay you were owed up until the time you were fired or quit.

Written by Michael Helfand