Five Laws That Protect You During Layoffs

December 4, 2009 – In The News
Monster-Career Advice

Knowing the difference between an illegal layoff and an unfair layoff can help employees decide whether to move on or fight it. Although employment in most states is “at will,” meaning the employee can quit or the company can fire them without cause, companies still have federal and state employment laws covering issues such as discrimination, whistle-blowing and layoff notices. There are five major federal laws that protect laid-off employees.

Discrimination Laws

How can you tell if your layoff was discriminatory? Consider all the reasons you were laid off, says Sarah Beth Johnson. If there’s even one other explanation for why you were let go, the discrimination charge likely won’t stick.

“If you’re the worst employee ever and you’re older, that’s not enough,” she says. “It really has to be that you were told you’re too old for the job, or you’re a black woman who can point to a white male who’s your peer in every way and you got laid off and he didn’t.”

It is legal to lay off a highly paid older worker. “If I can fire you and hire two people for your salary who do twice the work, I’m allowed to do that,” Johnson says.

Handbooks, Severance Not Binding

Employee handbooks typically cover layoffs, severance, pay for unused vacation and your duty to return company equipment, Johnson says.

Layoff Lawsuits

Even if you were illegally laid off, it may be tough to pursue your case in court. Johnson warns: If your salary was low, finding an attorney willing to take your case may be difficult.

A lawsuit found in your favor could result in back pay, damages and attorneys’ fees. However, those come with a cost. “You have to have the stomach for litigation,” Johnson says. “It will take two to four years, unless you have slam-dunk evidence.”

During the litigation process, be prepared to talk about topics like your work history and whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. If you claim emotional distress, your medical records will be brought up. Claim lost income, and your employer’s attorney will get to see your tax return and your spouse’s return, Johnson adds.

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