Millions of Americans have lost their jobs last year due to the Coronavirus. This article provides guidelines for terminated employees. If you’ve recently been fired or have heard about layoffs at work, the information herein will help you protect your rights. Nothing herein should be construed as legal advice applicable to your specific situation, and there is no substitute for a consultation with an experienced employment litigator.

What types of termination could be unlawful?

Generally, a company or employer has the right to fire an at-will employee for any reason or no reason. However, the company may not fire an employee for an illegal reason. Termination could be unlawful if:

  • An employment relationship is governed by an express or implied contract or other undertakings.
  • The termination is conducted just before an employee is about to vest in a retirement plan, bonus, or promotion plan. 
  • The termination violates public policy, such as firing an employee who reports for jury duty, serves in the military, or refuses or objects to unethical or illegal conduct.
  • The termination runs afoul of federal and state laws prohibiting racial, age, national origin, disability, and religious discrimination by employers.

Most employment lawsuits either settle or are dismissed. Very few employees prevail at trial. You should ask your employment litigator how confident they are in the courtroom.

What are the employee rights after a job termination?

Final Paycheck

Most jurisdictions provide remedies allowing employees to recover their final paycheck and any bonuses that have vested. Some states have more strict regulations and so you may have additional rights that vary from state to state. Many states provide that employees may recover attorney fees and costs from their employer if they need to sue to obtain compensation due to them. 

Severance Pay

A severance arrangement is a contract between an employer and an employee where the employee agrees not to sue the employer in exchange for a severance payment. Employees should request a lump-sum payment and obtain both a positive reference and the employer’s agreement that they will not object to the employee claiming for unemployment.

Employees who receive ample severance sometimes decide to go back to school or spend time with family before commencing their next job.

Possible Claims

Before signing a severance agreement, a former employee should consult with a lawyer to ensure that they are not waiving valuable rights. Although the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not compel businesses to pay severance compensation to fired workers, other statutes such as the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) provide for advance notice of mass layoffs. A variety of other statutes provide relief, including the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA), which protects employees who contract Coronavirus or who care for family members.

Health coverage

Terminated workers are entitled to health care benefits upon separation from their employer. Under U.S. law, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) provides benefits at employee expense after termination. Your employer should send you a notice to this effect shortly after termination.

Unemployment compensation

An employee being let will be able to recover unemployment benefits. Terminated employees who did not commit workplace misconduct are eligible for limited benefits, which may be increased due to Coronavirus. Under the unemployment benefits system, benefits are based on a proportion of the employee’s income, with a cap on benefits per pay period and duration of payments. Employees who fire too many employees will see their premiums increase.

Restrictive Covenants

You should ask your employer for a copy of any handbook or agreement that you signed when you joined the company. Generally, standalone agreements are more easily enforced than employee handbooks, though the latter can support certain claims as well. If you have been terminated, your severance agreement should specifically state that any restrictive covenant you signed does not preclude you from working in the same industry. After all, the employer terminated you, so they cannot complain that you went to work for their competitor unless you did something really bad to deserve termination!

Return of Property and Information

Generally speaking, company-issued equipment, employee work product, and company information remain the property of the employer after termination. You should offer to return such property and information when you receive your severance payment. If you retain such equipment or information or use this information to compete with your former employer in violation of the law or any contract, then you could be subject to civil or criminal penalties and could jeopardize any legitimate claim you have to compensation. You should consult with a lawyer before removing any information or property and before negotiating with your employer.

How can an attorney help?

An experienced employment law attorney can answer your questions and guide you through the legal process by analyzing complex employment laws and the facts of your situation to help you obtain maximum compensation.

An experienced employment litigator is aware of filing deadlines and can prepare and advocate your claim. Employment law attorneys deal with a wide variety of employment-related disputes about severance pay, breach of contract, privacy, wage and hour problems, restrictive covenants (e.g. non-competes), and numerous other employment law disputes.