The Missouri Supreme Court ruled on October 4, 2022 that most state employees are “at-will” employees, and as such, the state cannot negotiate terms with labor unions that would protect employees from being terminated without cause or would guarantee a certain term of employment.
A 2018 law removed most state employees from the merit system, which had required certain procedures and findings before terminating employees after an initial probationary period. After that law was passed, the state implemented regulations that removed many of the former merit system requirements.
Three labor unions that represent state employees challenged the new regulations. They argued that it was a breach of contract for the state to change employment terms during the term of an existing labor contract. The Court rejected that argument because the contracts all contained “savings clauses” that allowed amendment to conform to changing laws.
The unions also argued that the statute violated the Missouri Constitutional provision guaranteeing the right of employees to bargain collectively. The Supreme Court said that the 2018 law was not unconstitutional because there are other terms and conditions of employment that can still be negotiated. The only term and condition that cannot be negotiated is that employees are “at will,” meaning they can be terminated at any time and without cause. In other words, unions can still negotiate other terms of employment (such as wages, benefits, training, work hours, progressive discipline, etc.)—so long as those terms do not limit the state’s ability to terminate an employee at any time without cause.
The case will now go back to the Cole County Circuit Court to determine which protections can remain in the contracts or be put into future labor contracts. The 2018 law did not apply to state employees who work for agencies that are required to adhere to federal regulations, and those employees are still subject to the former merit system requirements.