I interpret your question as asking if your employer can fire you because your manager smelled alcohol on your breath. And yes, your employer can certainly do so. Your employer doesn't need any reason to fire you whatsoever. Employees and job applicants have very few employment rights, and employers have a lot of leeway in how they choose to run their businesses. In general, an employer can be unfair, obnoxious or bad at management. And an employer can make decisions based on faulty or inaccurate information. An employer has no obligation to warn an employee that he or she is not performing as the employer wants. It’s not a level playing field. An employer hires employees to provide work for its benefit, not for the benefit of the employees. Don't expect the employer to take care of its employees; it doesn’t have to and it rarely does.
There are some limitations on what an employer can do, mostly in the areas of public policy (such as discrimination law or whistle blowing), contract law, union-employer labor relations, and constitutional due process for government employees. Please see my guide to at-will employment in California which should help you understand employment rights: http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/an-overview-of-at-will-employment-all-states. After you take a look at the guide, you may be able to identify actions or behavior that fits one of the categories that allows for legal action. If so, an experienced plaintiffs employment attorney may be helpful.
After such a long time as an employee, you should at least try to negotiate a return to work. Talk to your manager in private. Explain the circumstances . . . why you had alcohol on your breath. Perhaps something unusual happened that day? Or maybe you have a drinking problem, in which case it may help you to get yourself into a treatment program before you go speak to your manager. Try to persuade the manager to allow you to prove your rehabilitation and/or remorse, emphasize your good and long work history, and ask to be re-hired.
Employment rights come from the state and federal legislatures. One of the best things people can do to improve their employment rights is vote for candidates with a good record on pro-employee, anti-corporate legislation. Another way to protect employment rights is to form or affiliate with a union, or participate in a union already in place.
I hope you can resolve your situation and wish you the best.
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An employer can take an adverse employment action for any reason or no reason, except a prohibited reason such as discrimination based upon race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, military service, etc. or opposing illegal conduct. The perception of alcohol on your breath is not a protected activity and would likely be grounds for termination, even though none are needed.
If there are extenuating circumstances such as you were taking prescription medication or something horrific happened that caused you to drink, you should explain the situation to your employer and ask for your job back. Otherwise, you should immediately apply for unemployment benefits.
I agree with my colleagues regarding the employer's right to terminate you at will. However, being terminated for having alcohol on your breath is likely going to be determined to be "misconduct" so you will likely not be able to get unemployment benefits as one of my colleagues has implicitly suggested.
Good luck to you.
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