Employment Law Attorneys
The Covid-19 Catch-All: Why Your Recent Termination Might Have Been Unlawful

The Covid-19 Catch-All: Why Your Recent Termination Might Have Been Unlawful

A record 22 million people were laid off in one month since the coronavirus pandemic shut down large portions of the U.S. economy as of the week ending April 16, according to the Wall Street Journal. The estimated current employment rate is 13.5%.  But were all those layoffs really due to the corona virus or did employers use the pandemic as cover to get rid of employees for other reasons, maybe unlawful reasons.  This is the big question many unemployed Americans are now asking.  Please review the following frequently asked questions and see which applies to you.

FAQ:    Were you recently furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated due to COVID, but your co-workers remain employed?

FAQ:    Is your Employer still operating and profitable, yet you were laid off or had your compensation reduced due to a business decision to reduce costs or eliminate your job position?

FAQ:    Were other younger employees retained, while you were furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated?

FAQ:    Were you laid off or terminated and not offered any severance or insufficient severance?

FAQ:    Were your unemployment benefits interfered with?

FAQ:    If you were unable to continue to work because you were sick, because a family member was sick or because you have young children at home, were you permitted to take FMLA leave or were you instantly laid off or terminated?

FAQ:    Were you the only one furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated or due to COVID, even though your Employer is calling it a “reduction in force”?

FAQ:    Do you think your Employer was looking for an excuse to get rid of you?

If you answered yes to any of the above, your seemingly straightforward COVID-based termination may be unlawful. Unfortunately, the majority of Employees in the U.S. are “at-will”. This means that employees are at the absolute and arbitrary whim of their employers and they may be demoted, terminated or otherwise treated adversely for any reason or no reason at all. The exception to the anything goes rule of an at-will employment arrangement is that employees may NOT be treated unlawfully.

If you have recently suffered an adverse change in the terms and conditions of your employment amidst the COVID-19 crisis, you may still have viable claims against your employer for unlawful or wrongful treatment. COVID-19 is not and should not be a catch-all excuse or defense for employers’ bad behavior and even a crisis of this magnitude does not relieve employers of their obligation to treat employees lawfully at all times. If something does not feel right to you about the circumstances of your change in employment, it is prudent to speak to an employment attorney and review the fact pattern surrounding your work situation. It is in your best interest to discern whether your employer may be using COVID-19 as a sham or cover for otherwise unlawful behavior.

Unlawful or wrongful acts that may entitle an employee to monetary damages for claims against their employer will usually fit in one of three scenarios. Employers actions can be shown to be unlawful if they:

              1) violate or fail to comply with any legislative mandate, act or

              statute;

              2) breach a valid contract or agreement; or

              3) discriminate, harass or retaliate based on a protected class trait.

COVID-19 does not give employers a green light to violate laws, ignore contracts or discriminate against employees, and a termination under any one of those scenarios might be a wrongful one.     

Scenario 1 – Statutory Violations:

Employers must abide by all existing laws and statutes, especially as they apply to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the employers’ obligation to stay abreast of and comply with all new mandates imposed and legislation enacted in response to COVID-19, including, but not limited to enhanced FMLA, the CARES Act and the expansion to the Unemployment Compensation Act. This is in addition the existing laws that have long protected employees from discrimination and retaliation such as Pregnancy, Sex Harassment, Sexual Stereotype, Disability, Age, Whistle Blowing and Family Medical Leave, to name just a few. Thus, any analysis of whether your termination was lawful and proper should begin with a review of the facts relative to the controlling law and any revisions and updates to those laws. If you identify any facts in the events leading up to your termination that just do not seem right, you may have uncovered the hidden basis for your termination.  For example, you got a good review last fall and received a bonus in January, but in March you were terminated without explanation.  The small window between the January bonus and March termination should be closely examined for any facts supporting bogus performance issues, favorable treatment given to other employees and not you and replacement by coworker who is substantially younger and lesser qualified.  The examples are endless, but you get the gist. See further discussion below.

Scenario 2 – Breach of Contract:

Even an at-will employment arrangement must be considered in light of any existing employment contracts or agreements between the employer and employee. In addition to or in the absence of a formal written employment contract, Courts may look to such documents as offer letters, on-boarding communications, employee handbooks, published severance plans and emails in order to demonstrate the existence of any enforceable covenants between the parties that may speak to such topics as causes for termination, compensation, bonus, healthcare, long term incentive compensation and severance. Thus, where a valid contract can be established as to any of your employment terms, your employer is bound by those terms and any deviation may be an unlawful breach for which you might be able to seek and recover damages. So, if you have been terminated or otherwise caused to separate from your employer, even if you are at-will and even amidst the COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative that you review all of your documents in order to discern that you are being treated lawfully according to the terms that were agreed upon and promised to you.

Scenario 3 (THIS IS THE BIGGIE) – Discrimination Claims:

Even if you are an at-will employee who was let go as a result of COVID-19, you may still have a claim for wrongful termination against your employer if their decision to let you go was at all based on discriminatory motives. Discrimination is unlawful and where an adverse act is taken against you because of such protected traits as your age, gender, pregnancy, race or national origin, disability, perceived disability, associational disability or sexual orientation, you may have legal claims against your Employer.

In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination or the smoking gun as we call it, discrimination can be shown if you are a member of the protected class and you were treated adversely (demoted, furloughed, laid off or terminated) under circumstances which give rise to an inference of discrimination, i.e. circumstances that show discrimination was the substantial motivating reason for the adverse act taken against you. The way an employer can defend itself against such a claim and rebut that inference is to show that there was a “legitimate” lawful reason for the termination, such as performance issues and other cause such as a business decision or reduction in force.

Certainly, you can all see where this is heading. COVID-19 and the related financial fallout provides your employer with the legitimate business reason it needs to “lawfully” terminate you.  However, this cannot be accepted at face value. In fact, if you are able to show that the supposed legitimate reason relied on by employer was a sham or cover for discriminatory motives, you may prevail on your claims against them in a severance negotiation. There are surely many situations where an employer, especially during these challenging economic times, needs to make a tough business decision to lay off employees or institute a reduction of force, and where their decision to do so is legitimate and truthful.

Employer May Have Used Covid-19 As An Excuse to Fire You

However, there are also many instances where certain employees are selected within the context of a business decisions, based on discriminatory motives. For example, the company makes the “business decision” to lay off only the older employees, or only the female employees or only the pregnant employees. In addition, there might not even be any explicit or formal business decision to reduce costs or a effectuate a reduction in force, but your employer may still feel safe engaging in discriminatory behavior knowing or hoping that any terminations taking place now will be viewed as a necessary and legitimate, due to the Covid-19 business climate. Again, we cannot allow employers to use this catch-all defense to what maybe culpable and unacceptable discriminatory behavior.  If you see something, say something to an employment attorney.

There is no doubt that both employers and employees are presently finding themselves in the most difficult and tenuous circumstances. However, employers, in response to COVID-19, seemingly have absolute power and new founded legitimacy to make discriminatorily targeted employment decisions against their at-will employees, under the guise of a business decision. And this is very concerning and unlawful. If you are in a protected class because you are over the age of 40 or fall into any of the other class of protected traits discussed herein, and have seen a change to your employment that you do not believe was made as the result of a good faith business decision, cost reduction, reduction in force in response to COVID-19, or other legitimate basis, we encourage you to speak to an employment attorney immediately. You may be entitled to reinstatement, severance or increased severance or settlement dollars relative to your discrimination claims for wrongful termination or other possible improper acts by your employer.

Carey & Associates, P.C. is currently providing complimentary consultations for potential new clients who are experiencing any employment related issues or believe they might have possible employment claims, as a result of the COVID -19 pandemic. Feel free to contact our office if you need help with that or any of your employment matters.

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