Yes, nannies are at-will employees. In every U.S. state except Montana, employment is presumed to be at-will, meaning either the employer or the employee can legally terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without notice, and with or without cause. The employer has not guaranteed employment for a period of time, and the employee has not promised to stay; therefore, either party can end the relationship without financial penalty. There are, however, exceptions and limitations to the at-will relationship, so employers should still be careful when terminating an employee.
When a nanny and a family sign a long-term agreement for employment, it is not a legally binding contract with regard to the exact amount of time the nanny will be employed. Rather it’s setting expectations for the employment relationship, and serves as a commitment the family is making to the nanny, showing that they want the nanny employed for the length of time designated by the agreement, but does not guarantee that length of time. However, if there is language in the agreement that states a nanny must give two weeks’ notice before leaving, and then the nanny quits without giving such notice, the agreement can be viewed as a legally binding document should the family wish to pursue legal action against the nanny for violating the terms of the agreement.
It’s important to keep in mind that at-will employment does not permit an employer to terminate employment based on the employee exercising a legal right or belonging to a protected class (e.g., race, sex, religion, national origin); such a basis would be illegal and could lead to a discrimination claim. Consequently, the safest way to terminate an employee is to have documentation that justifies the legitimate business reasons behind the termination. This documentation would include infractions of policy, instances of poor performance, and any disciplinary or corrective action taken. The more an employer can do to show that they gave a terminated employee the chance to improve, the better.
The bottom line is that while at-will employment makes it sound like you can terminate a nanny at any time, with or without notice, and with or without cause—and to a degree you can—legitimate and documented business reasons are always your best bet.
For more information, contact us at (518) 348-0400.