Supplanting civil service systems’ procedural protections with at-will employment policies is a recent and important phenomenon in public service. Recent reforms have sought to increase accountability and flexibility in the public sector’s personnel systems. One radical reform has witnessed a dismantling of civil service systems and replacing of them with employment at will (EAW) systems. Reforms of this kind have been more pronounced at the state and local government levels. Amid the reforms, scholars and public employees are skeptical of moving public employees to EAW systems, fearing the ethical status of EAW policies. As a consequence of at-will employment over the years, workforce reforms have given up some flexibility and direct power to managers, particularly in the federal government. On this facade, at-will employment position guarantees the utmost flexibility over employees because it gives executives absolute authority in the hiring and firing of employees for one reason or the other, and in some instances, for no reason whatsoever.
The doctrine of at-will employment in the public sector postulates that employees may be dismissed at their employers will, for good cause or no cause at all, except where the employees are hired on a fixed term. With this in place, individual workers lack equal bargaining power in dealing with their employers. The termination of any solitary relationship means far more to the employee than the employer. The results can be very demoralizing, and not just economically. It is difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the extent to which at-will employment is expanding in the public sector, or to ascertain its potential as a growing trend, but there is evidence that it exists.
Access to procedural due process rights such as complaints or petition procedures of public workers is either restricted or absolutely eradicated. Due Process for public employees according to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S Constitution, courts have held that an employee has a property interest on a job if there is a written or implied contract granting the employee a property interest on the job; if past practice of the employer shows that the employee has a property interest on the job; or if a statute gives the employee a property interest on the job . If a public employee has a property interest on a job, he or she cannot be discharged without due process. Due process requires that the employee be given notice of the reason for being discharged and a fair hearing at which to contest the decision.
Legally, at-will employment was established through the elimination of the property interest in employment that state workers had previously enjoyed. In traditional civil service, an employment property interest exists when an employee has a reasonable expectation of continued employment provided his or her performance is satisfactory. The government creates such an interest when it promises employees, through merit system statutes or other provisions, that they will be terminated for just cause only. When a property interest is established, constitutionally mandated procedures for termination must be followed because the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit government from taking property without due process of law.