Whether or not you use an employment attorney to review and negotiate your employment severance agreement, you need to know the mechanics of the agreement. The following discussion will go in depth and explain the legal terms in an understandable way. If you need further information on severance negotiations, we have written about severance agreements and negotiations in previous articles, read HERE and HERE.
Generally, all severance agreements accomplish one task, paying employees to release their claims against the company in exchange for money and confidentiality. I have seen thousands of these agreements in my twenty-five years of practicing employment law for employees and executives. They are all relatively the same in the terms, but differ in their layout. Most law firms use the same template, so I see the same agreement used over and over again.
The Intro Paragraphs
The initial paragraphs of every severance agreement identify the parties to the agreement and include a couple of “Whereas” paragraphs. The “Whereas” paragraphs are prefatory and not required in any agreement. I usually strike them as irrelevant.
The Non-Admission Provision
Every severance agreement includes a provision that the employer is not making an admission of wrongdoing, even though the employer’s actions were objectively discriminatory or wrongful. A non-admission provision is standard, but to the newly terminated employee, this provision seems awkwardly strange given the employee’s experience leading up to the termination.
The “Show Me the Money” Consideration Provision
Consideration or aka the payment provision. Well, for employees this is the most important provision in the agreement—what they will be paid to release their valid claims against their employer. It is important to consider the following structure when drafting the consideration or payment provision. First, all money paid to an employee to settle an employment case is taxable as income. Second, you can split the settlement payment into parts to take advantage of tax planning. The employer will also like this option too, as they pay less in FICA. We normally allocate 60% as 1099 income and 40% as W-2 income. This allows you to receive a larger lump sum as less taxes are deducted. The employer will require you to indemnify the employer if and when the IRS challenges the settlement agreement Form 1099 payments. In reality, I have never seen nor heard of the IRS conducting audits on client settlement agreements.
Attorneys’ Fees are Tax Deductible Against Gross Income
Remember, if you spent hard earned income on attorneys’ fees pursuing employment discrimination claims only and you received a judgment or a settlement in your favor, you can deduct the total amount of the attorneys’ fees against your gross income on your Form 1040. You can only take this deduction for the year in which the case settled or judgment occurred. See the attached link below. This is a crucial element to your decision to accept settlement, as most employers refuse to pay for your legal fees to get to a settlement. You are not alone if you never knew about this important IRS regulation. We regularly advise clients about this deduction, but it is recommended you speak to an accountant for tax advice. https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tips/tax-deductions-and-credits/can-i-deduct-legal-fees-on-my-taxes/L98fUeOrM
General Release of All Claims
When employers pay severance in exchange for a signed release, the general release provision is the primary provision most employers are concerned about. This provision effectively identifies every conceivable claim, known or unknown, that the employee has and then causes the employee to waive all such claims. Most severance agreements set forth a long laundry list of state and federal statutes the employee is agreeing to waive claims under. However, some claims can never be released in a written severance agreement, as state and federal laws prohibit such waiver of claims. For example, you cannot waive and release the following claims: (1) workers compensation; (2) unemployment insurance claims and (3) claims made to any self-regulatory government agency such as the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC).
Challenge to Agreement or Enforceability
Most severance agreements contain a provision that if you seek to challenge the enforceability of the agreement, you have to return the money. That seems fair and it is. But some employers also sneak in penalty provisions in case the employee breaches the agreement for speaking out about the settlement etc. Employers often seek the total value of the settlement or some six figure amount to protect the employers in case the departing employee goes rogue and publicly denounces the employer on social media platforms. This penalty provision often shows up in cases where there is a lot of bad blood spilt between the parties, particularly after a lawsuit is filed. We strongly advise clients against these draconian provisions and inform employers they are overreaching and are already protected by non-disparagement clauses and employee confidentiality agreements previously signed at the start of employment.
No Other Amounts Are Due
Employers often place a redundant provision in the agreement that the company does not owe the employee anything more. I say redundant because the release provision should have covered every claim under the sun.
Every severance agreement contains a non-disparagement clause, but one only applicable to the employee and not the employer. We advise clients to include a mutual non-disparagement clause to be signed by the employer so it does not engage in blacklisting, which is a very real phenomenon. You will need to name specific individuals and managers when negotiating a mutual provision, as employers object to having to police their entire workforce. I personally never liked that response, but hey, these are called negotiations for a reason—you don’t get all the things you want and must compromise or litigate.
References and Employment Verification
Contrary to urban legend, employers do not provide references to departing employees. What they do provide is a 1-800 number to confirm your employment and title, but nothing more. If you have a good reference still within the company, I suggest you get that in writing or have the person contact your new employer directly.
No Future Employment
Most if not all severance agreements contain a provision that bars you from obtaining employment with the company, or its’ subsidiaries, in the future. Yes, this is perfectly legal. What the provision really accomplishes is that it prevents future liability by the company in the event you re-apply for a position and claim you were somehow discriminated against for a failure to hire. If you asserted claims against the company prior to termination or thereafter, be reasonable with yourself and do not expect the company will want to rehire you. Consider yourself “canceled” by your old employer.
Return of Company Property
Severance agreements require you to return company property upon your termination or before you receive your severance payment. You would be surprised by the number of times I have had to explain what is and is not company property to former or departing employees. I often use the example of company email; you know the one containing your corporate email address. Well, the email and the piece of paper it is printed on do not belong to you. So if an email does not belong to you, everything else the employer gave you to do your job also does not belong to you. My biggest concern arises when the employee tells me he wants to hold onto the hard drive he purchased that contains the company email list, client list, power point presentations and any other corporate proprietary information. All of the above company property must be returned to the employer or you risk getting sued for theft, conversion of property etc. and risk breaching your severance agreement and returning the money paid to you under that agreement.
Entire Agreement or Full Integration Provision
This is a standard term in all well drafted employment agreements, including severance agreements. Essentially, the only terms of the agreement are those terms set forth in the severance agreement. Any oral or written agreements made prior to the full execution of the severance agreement are nonbinding and unenforceable. So be careful in your review of your case so that you do not hold expectations that are not realistic. You would need to have an employment attorney evaluate a prior oral agreement to determine if it is viable prior to signing the severance agreement. Some employers have promised severance prior to the severance agreement but then walked back those promises. Again, an employment attorney can help you dissect this important legal issue. You may discover that your employer created a severance plan of one person—you.
Non-competition and Non-solicitation Provisions
We often see employers sneaking into severance agreements brand new non-competition and non-solicitation provisions where none previously existed during the employee’s employment. We advise clients to strike these provisions and most employers do not raise the subject again. As employment lawyers, we see this tactic used every day, but you do not. This is one example where you should involve an employment attorney to review your agreement, whether helping to negotiate it with the employer or from behind the scenes. We also see employers reaffirming the prior noncompetition and non-solicitation provision signed at the start of employment into the severance agreement. Again, we advise clients to challenge the inclusion and enforceability of these restrictive covenants. Most employers will back away once they are met with a good argument as to why the prior agreements are unenforceable.
Agreement Signed In Counterparts
It is common to include a provision that the parties to a severance agreement can sign in separate counterpart copies, each of which will be considered one fully executed agreement. Counterparts are exchanged via email and facsimile, as well as in person.
21 Days to Sign or Else
Don’t panic if you have not signed your agreement within the 21 days, as spelled out in the “proposed” agreement. There is no state or federal law that states you have 21 days or 45 days to sign the severance agreement. If the agreement is not signed by you, do you think you have an enforceable contract? No. So, ignore the 21 or 45 day threat and just speak with an employment attorney to discover what claims or leverage you have to increase the severance amount. Often times, consulting with an employment attorney will pay off in huge dividends to you in the form of a much higher settlement value at the conclusion of the negotiations. The difference or delta here is the employment attorney. She or he has the professional experience you lack, and it is that experience and knowledge of the law that is applied to your narrative to develop claims that stick against your employer. As you read above, your legal fees are 100% tax deductible, so why wouldn’t you explore your potential claims with an employment attorney?
I saved the best for last. Of course everyone knows that you give up your legal rights in a severance agreement, but many do not know you also agree to a “lifetime” of silence. No, you cannot write a book about your horrible employer if you agree to take their blood money! But the reason why I saved this topic for last is because of recent social and legal developments. The #metoo event and the aftermath that followed brought with it a new understanding about confidentiality agreements, also called nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). The social issue that has arisen is that we are no longer comfortable letting the bad actors of the world get away with their misdeeds, in particular any misdeed of a sexual nature—regardless of gender or sexual orientation, by covering them up with confidential settlement agreements. Think of Harvey Weinstein or the former Met Opera conductor James Levine. For decades and continuing today, every single employer requires the departing employee sign a confidentiality provision in a severance agreement in exchange for severance payments. This is the default rule followed by all employers. This default rule has only caused more employees to be harmed by the same bad actors who caused the previous cases that eventually settled.
Many states like New York have created statutes requiring a voluntary confidentiality agreement, separate and apart from the settlement agreement. While this sounds like a good idea, it has already been abused by employers. Most employers will now apportion a part of the settlement payment to be exchanged for a signed confidentiality agreement. Simply, the legislators were lobbied by employers and should have banned the use of settlement dollars in exchange for signed confidentiality agreements.
The bottom line for you is this. We are just not at the social pivot point for you to resist the use of confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements, so don’t waste your time arguing about this issue with your former employer. But one day confidentiality provisions in employee severance agreements will be banned as a matter of statute and public policy. This is a nonpolitical issues, as both liberals and conservatives use confidentiality agreements to conceal the illegal misdeeds of their managers and employees.
In an often-quoted line from the hit TV series Dexter, actor Michael C. Hall, who plays the title character said: “There are no secrets in life; just hidden truths that lie beneath the surface.” For those of us involved in the resolution of employment claims on behalf of employees, this quote has special meaning. Beneath the surface of most employment settlement agreements lie the undisclosed facts that led to the conflict and which often result in the messy end of an employment relationship. Recently proposed legislation in California seeks to ensure that those “hidden truths” do not remain hidden.
California Proposes New Law – Silence No More Act (SNM Act)
A new law proposed in California this week called the Silenced No More Act (SNM Act) is intended to prevent the enforcement of non-disclosure provisions in a wide variety of employment settlement agreements. The legislation, proposed by California State Senator Connie M. Leyva, will expand upon the 2018 STAND Act (Stand Together Against Non Disclosure) and will protect plaintiffs in cases of employment discrimination and harassment of all kinds who choose to speak out publicly about their experiences. Under the current provisions of the STAND Act, only plaintiffs in cases of gender discrimination or sexual harassment may avoid non-disclosure provisions. The new law will expand the STAND Act to prevent the use of non-disclosure provisions in employee severance agreements. Under the SNM Act, targets of discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, or gender identity will also now be free to ignore the contractual gag orders companies negotiate into their settlement agreements.
This legislation has been supported by employee rights groups in California including the California Employment Lawyer’s Association and the Equal Rights Advocates. The new laws are seen as an end to the days when employer misconduct can be hidden from public view. Workers who have been targeted with harassment and discrimination will be free to speak their truth publicly. The perpetrators of this type of misconduct can no longer hide behind the veil of secrecy provided by their company. Non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements will no longer be used to silence employees. The hope is that the public disclosure of the details of these abusive work environments will prevent perpetrators from targeting other workers in the future.
STAND and SNM Could Influence Other States to Pass Similar Laws
Although STAND and SNM (if it is enacted) are or would be exclusively California laws, these statutes could ultimately have a broad national impact. Other states often follow California’s lead in employment matters. Further, the fact that so many large technology companies are headquartered in California gives these laws an outsized influence on the national conversation about non-disclosure agreements. In the wake of the STAND Act, a number of states have enacted some limitations on non-disclosure enforcement including Washington, New York, New Jersey, Vermont and Tennessee. Many more states are likely to see some version of this legislation in the future.
More Cow Bell – More Corporate Disclosure and Shaming = More Equality in the Workplace
As am employment attorney, I was very curious about how this new legislation might impact the ability of plaintiff’s lawyers to negotiate settlements for clients in employment discrimination cases. Often the best leverage plaintiffs have in the early stages of an employment case is the prospect of public disclosure of misconduct on the part of a company employee or manager. The reason many companies offer settlements to claimants is to avoid embarrassing public disclosures of uncomfortable truths about their corporate culture or work environment. Companies also have an interest in keeping settlements secret to avoid what they see as “encouraging” other claimants looking to “cash in” on potential claims. In other words, the concern is that the non-disclosure and non-disparagement provisions outlawed by the STAND Act and the SNM Act are the best tools to obtain fair settlements for employees who have been targeted with harassment or discrimination.
The STAND Caveat
Further examination of the proposed statute reveals that its scope is more limited than I had anticipated. These statutes are actually structured to encourage and not to discourage early settlement of discrimination cases. The STAND Act allows for use and enforcement of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in cases where there has not yet been any court or agency filings. So during the initial stage of the claim, when a demand letter has been issued but where claims have not yet been filed with state or federal human rights agencies (such as the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission or “EEOC” in federal discrimination cases or the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities or “CHRO” in Connecticut state discrimination cases) and no lawsuit had been filed, the companies may include NDAs in settlement agreements and they are enforceable.
This exception to the ban on NDAs is highly significant. Far from discouraging early settlements of discrimination claims, this feature of the proposed law offers employers a powerful incentive to settle employment discrimination and harassment claims early. If an early settlement is not reached then the agency filings will occur and the employer will lose the right to demand an NDA as part of the settlement agreement. In order to keep employee misconduct secret, employers will have to settle employment discrimination cases early and often. While some cases can be kept secret by early settlement negotiations, targets of discrimination who want to shed light on their experience can ensure their ability to speak out by filing their claims with state and federal agencies.
What Opponents/Management/Defense Attorneys Say About Anti-NDA Legislation
Opponents of the anti-NDA legislation contend that restricting NDAs takes away a survivor’s choice to keep their case private and provides a strong incentive for employers to refuse settlement options and to defend themselves against a publicly disclosed allegation. According to Attorney Jill Basinger, an entertainment litigation partner and Michael L. Smith an associate at Glaser Weil in Los Angeles, “This harms survivors of sexual harassment and assault by removing their choice and forcing them to endure the hardship and uncertainty of a public trial as the only means of vindicating their claims.” Once an agency filing occurs or a lawsuit is commenced, the NDAs become unenforceable. It seems as if these laws would remove a strong incentive for defendant employers to settle claims.
It appears, however, as if the STAND Act has resulted in an increase in pre-filing mediations in employment cases in California. According to Mariko Yoshihara, the Legislative Counsel and Policy Director for the California Employment Lawyer’s Association, the predictions and fears over the STAND Act impairing the ability to settle have not borne out. According to Attorney Yoshihara, attorneys involved in this type of litigation have informally reported that the legislation has not lowered settlement amounts or impaired the settlement process. Additionally, according to Yoshihara, it has made it easier to advocate for employee rights from a public policy perspective because the targets of harassment and discrimination can make their stories public. While dispositive data on this point is not yet available, it seems as if the legislation is working in California.
Further, fears surrounding the forced public disclosure of the identity of the claimant are unfounded. Under the STAND Act there are specific provisions which protect the identity of the complaining employee in the context of a lawsuit. The STAND Act includes a specific provision that shields the identity of the claimant and all facts that could lead to the discovery of his or her identity, including documents and pleadings filed in court, at the request of the claimant. California Code of Civil Procedure 1001(c). Thus, the anti-NDA legislation does not force the disclosure of a claimant’s identity.
While many employer advocacy groups including various chambers of commerce and industry and trade associations have opposed legislation such as STAND and SNM, similar legislation should be considered by all state legislatures that have not already enacted similar laws. When it comes to use of NDAs in employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases there is an unfair imbalance of power between the bargaining parties. The employers who are often defending the harasser or denying that the harassment occurred have an overwhelming advantage over the complaining employee in terms of investigative, legal, personnel, and financial resources. Employers are frequently holding all of the cards in a settlement negotiation. Legislation such as STAND and SNM will help to level the playing field at least with respect to NDAs.
More Power to the People/Employees – Shift In the Balance of Power
Placing the power over which aspects of the case can or will be made public in the hands of the targets of harassment and discrimination will help balance the power in the arena of employment settlement agreements. As evidenced by the initial success of the STAND Act, these laws can be an important tool in ending the culture of silence that has permitted harassing and discriminatory behavior to continue in the workplace for so long. In a recent opinion piece, the feminist writer and critic Marcie Bianco said: “If the societal change necessary for dignity and justice is to occur, we must move from awareness to accountability.” This legislation should help bridge the gap between awareness and accountability. We need to see a whole lot more of those “hidden truths” lying beneath the surface of the American workplace.
 Basinger, Jill and Smith, Michael L.; “How California’s NDA Restrictions Cause More Harm Than Good for Survivors” (Guest Column); Hollywood Reporter; https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/how-californias-nda-restrictions-cause-more-harm-good-survivors-guest-column-1280922
 LeHocky, Mark, “Shining a Needed Light on Harassment and Discrimination Claims: The Collective Benefits from California’s Recent Secret Settlement Restrictions”, Contra Costa County Bar Association, March 2020; https://www.cccba.org/article/shining-a-needed-light-on-harassment-and-discrimination-claims/
 Bianco, Marcie, “Britney fans angry at Justin Timberlake have a point.”CNN Opinion, February 10, 2021.
It dawned on me this morning that I have never really asked the 20,000 people on our blog list what you all think about the articles we are writing every week and the associated podcast episodes. For the past 17 or so years, we have been producing insightful and informative articles to help you better understand the complexity of employment and constitutional law issues that surround us every day at work. Our point of view is from the trenches, armed in dystopian combat, not some lofty ivory tower. Our approach is neutral, straight down the middle but veering off to one side occasionally when the issue is obvious. Topics range from severance negotiations, forced arbitration, to asserting first amendment rights outside of work.
Yes, my intentions are very clear. I enjoy stirring the pot regarding employment issues, because I can and because there is just too little discussion about this enormous time expenditure we call working. If you get something out of our articles that helps you deal with work issues or as attorneys (and there are a lot of you on this list) (and “honorable guests”) we help you expand the scope of view on employment law, then let us know what you think. This morning’s epiphany was really a question. What are other people thinking about the same topics we are writing about? Speech is free, express your opinion and get the discussion going. You can bet I will write about the responses you all provide.
We invite you to let us know by a variety of ways. All of the responses will help us understand what is important to you and what is not.
Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments and opinions about what’s on your mind.
Hey, you can even pick up the phone and call me directly at the office (203) 255-4150.
1. THINK OF YOUR SEPARATION/SEVERANCE OFFER AS A NEGOTIATION.
2. REVIEW WHAT YOU ARE BEING OFFERED – USUALLY MONEY.
3. CONFIRM THAT YOU ARE BEING OFFERED EVERYTHING YOU ARE ENTITLED TO
4. ASK FOR A COPY OF YOUR PERSONNEL FILE – YOU ARE LEGALLY ENTITLED TO IT.
5. CONFIRM WHETHER YOU HAVE AN ERISA GROUP BENEFITS PLAN WHICH COULD INCLUDE SEVERANCE BENEFITS.
6. CONSIDER WHETHER YOU MIGHT HAVE ANY LEGAL CLAIMS AGAINST YOUR EMPLOYER.
7. REQUEST TO BE RELEASED FROM ANY NON-COMPETE, NON-SOLICIT, OR OTHER RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS (IF ANY APPLY TO YOU)
8. REVIEW NON-DISPARAGEMENT PROVISIONS AND ASK THAT THEY LIKEWISE PROTECT YOU.
9. CONTROL YOUR FUTURE REFERENCE.
10. ARBITRATION CLAUSES.
The Employee Survival Guide is a podcast only for employees. We will share with you all the information your employer does not want you to know about and guide you through various important employment law issues. The goal of the Employee Survival Guide podcast is to provide you with critical insights about your employment and give you the confidence to protect your job and career, especially during difficult times.
YOUR HOST MARK CAREY
The Employee Survival Guide podcast is hosted by seasoned Employment Law Attorney Mark Carey, who has only practiced in the area of Employment Law for the past 25 years. Mark has seen just about every type of employment dispute there is and has filed several hundred lawsuits in state and federal courts around the country, including class action suits. He has a no frills and blunt approach to employment issues faced by millions of workers nationwide. Mark endeavors to provide both sides to each and every issue discussed on the podcast so you can make an informed decision.
EMPLOYEE SURVIVAL GUIDE PODCAST IS LIKE NO OTHERS
The Employee Survival Guide podcast is just different than other lawyer podcasts! How? Mark hates “lawyer speak” used by lawyers and just prefers to talk using normal everyday language understandable to everyone, not just a few. This podcast is for employees only because no one has considered conveying employment information directly to employees, especially information their employers do not want them to know about. Mark is not interested in the gross distortion and default systems propagated by all employers, but targets the employers intentions, including discriminatory animus, designed to make employees feel helpless and underrepresented within each company. Company’s have human resource departments which only serve to protect the employer. You as an employee have nothing! Well, now you have the Employee Survival Guide to deal with your employer.
Through the use of quick discussions about individual employment law topics, Mark easily provides the immediate insight you need to make important decisions. Mark also uses dramatizations based on real cases he has litigated to explore important employment issues from the employee’s perspective. Both forms used in the podcast allow the listener to access employment law issues without all the fluff used by many lawyers.
If you enjoyed this episode of the Employee Survival Guide please like us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We would really appreciate if you could leave a review of this podcast on your favorite podcast player such as Apple Podcasts.
The content of this website is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice nor create an attorney-client relationship. Carey & Associates, P.C. makes no warranty, express or implied, regarding the accuracy of the information contained on this website or to any website to which it is linked to.
Podcast: How to Negotiate a Severance Agreement With Your Employer. This episode of the Employee Survival Guide discusses a very important topic of how to negotiate a severance package with your employer. Your host Attorney Mark Carey will run you through his tactics and strategies of how to negotiate a successful severance agreements. Mark’s knowledge covers more than 24 years negotiating severance employment agreements for employees and executives.
If you enjoyed this episode of the Employee Survival Guide please like us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We would really appreciate if you could leave a review of this podcast on your favorite podcast player such as Apple Podcasts.
The content of this website is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice nor create an attorney-client relationship. Carey & Associates, P.C. makes no warranty, express or implied, regarding the accuracy of the information contained on this website or to any website to which it is linked to.
It happens in every economic downturn. Companies that are doing just fine, thank you, go through rounds of layoffs to the cheers of Wall Street. Their stock value goes up because they cut expenses, and there’s no real consumer or job market backlash. So many companies are laying off workers that no one can keep track of which ones were on the brink of insolvency and which ones were riding the wave.
We see it in news and our firm has seen it in the calls we’ve gotten in the last few weeks. Last week, for example, IBM announced that it is laying off an undisclosed number of workers. Its CEO made a statement last month about uncertainty caused by COVID-19, but IBM’s current stock price is only about 6% off its price from one year ago today, and up nearly $30 per share from its low point on March 23, 2020. Bicycle shops across the US have backorders and waitlists they’ve never seen before, but we know of significant layoffs by manufacturers.
So what’s an undisclosed number of layoffs in the vast ocean of 38.6 million unemployed Americans?
I try to avoid falling into the trap of absolutes. Businesses exist to make money, so how can you fault them for doing so? Except, there is something patently unfair about firing people for no good reason at all. And mean-spirited about doing it at a time when it will be difficult for your former employees to find another job. And vulgar about using a the economic fall out of a global pandemic to deflect attention from their own opportunistic behavior.
If our Supreme Court says that corporations can have the religious beliefs of the humans who own them, then shouldn’t we expect them to behave ethically with regard to the humans who serve them?
Fortunately, some in business are beginning to recognize that “Greed is good,” isn’t the best of all possible worlds. The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from America’s largest companies, recently updated its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation to recognize the company’s role in serving all stakeholders – shareholders and employees alike. If more companies adopt this approach, maybe we can disincentivize these parasitic layoffs. Maybe we can minimize the effects of economic downturns overall.
Watch Out for Parasitic Layoffs: Companies are Dropping Headcount to Boost the Bottom Line While No One’s Paying Attention: If you would like more information about whether your layoff was illegal, please contact our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates, P.C. or send an email to email@example.com.
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
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.
Your Job and the Coronavirus 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself
The issue is not if the Coronavirus will impact your employment but when it will. If you contract the Coronavirus or you are quarantined due to a family member having the illness, you need to know the following important pieces of information to protect yourself.
1. Having the Coronavirus is a Disability and You Are Entitled to Protections
If you are diagnosed with the Coronavirus, you will have a physical disability pursuant to state and federal law. Generally, any impairment of your major life functions is considered a disability and it appears that the Coronavirus is so severe it can become fatal in a short period of time. An employer who discriminates against an employee who contracts the Coronavirus may be liable under disability laws. Also, you should request a reasonable accommodation for a disability leave of absence to quarantine yourself and seek medical assistance. Your employer has an obligation to discuss your accommodation, albeit after they order you not to come to the office until you recover.
State and federal disability laws also protect employees who are “regarded as” having the Coronavirus but have not been diagnosed yet or do not even have the virus. The medical community has only indicated the early signs of the Coronavirus mimic flu symptoms and you will not know which illness you have until you have been tested. The idea here is that disability laws seek to address discriminatory biases held by employers who speculate a person has a disability but are unsure about the truth of the employee’s medical situation.
Finally, the disability laws also protect employees “associated with” individual family members who have the Coronavirus. If you are fired out of fear that your family member infected you, you are protected against discrimination and unlawful termination, even though you never contracted the illness.
2. You May Have Rights Pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act
If you contract the Coronavirus, and you have worked a significant number of hours in the past year, you may be entitled to take time off, paid in some states like New York and soon Connecticut. You will be entitled to 12 weeks or more and your job will be protected. However, you have to come back to work before the expiration of the FMLA leave or your employer will terminate you. This leave of absence overlaps with the disability accommodation request above. A good an employment lawyer will know how to navigate this for you.
3. You May Be Entitled to Short Term and Long Term Disability Benefits
You may also be entitled to paid time off under your employer’s short term and long term disability benefits plan. Again, this disability leave of absence overlaps with the disability and FMLA leaves of absence. In order to qualify for benefits, you need to apply for them through your Human Resources Department and demonstrate, via supporting medical documentation, you are totally disabled. Given the severity of the Coronavirus, you will certainly qualify as having a total disability. The grey area will be in those cases where the symptoms of the virus are not as severe and you recover within a matter of weeks. If you recover, and hopefully you do, the STD and LTD benefits will only be paid for the period of your disability. You would need to return to work after your recovery, but an employment lawyer will guide you through this process.
4. You May Be Entitled to Workers Compensation
If and only if you contract the Coronavirus while at work, can you file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. This type of claim takes longer to collect from the insurer, but more importantly, it may bar you from recovery under other state laws but not federal laws. Federal laws will always preempt state law claims.
5. You May Be Entitled To Severance If You Are Terminated
If you are terminated for contracting the Coronavirus, regarded as having the virus or associated with a family member who has it, you should consider hiring an employment attorney to attempt to negotiate a severance package with your employer. Your employer may already have a severance plan which pays out benefits, i.e. weeks of salary for years of service, and you will need to sign a waiver and release of claims, aka settlement agreement. An employer will want to avoid any connection to accusations that it fired an employee for having the Coronavirus; it just does not seem fair and the right thing to do.
Your Job and the Coronavirus 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself. If you would like more information about this topic and need to speak to an employment attorney, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150.
5 Essential Things To Know About Severance Agreements
1. Every Severance Agreement Must be Negotiated
A severance agreement is NOT an agreement until you sign on the dotted line. Until then, it is a severance OFFER. And as with all offers, it can be negotiated. If you are presented with a severance offer at work, either at the start of or upon separating from your employment, it is crucial that you have an employment attorney weigh in. The language in the agreement is just as, if not more, important than the severance dollar amount being offered to you. But both the dollar amount and covenants therein can be and should be reviewed and negotiated so that the agreement is as optimal as possible for you. Because Connecticut is an “at will” employment state, employers can terminate you for any reason or for no reason (as long as it is not an unlawful reason) and they are under no obligation to provide you with any severance (unless they have an express written severance policy or agreement with you already in place). Knowing this, if an employer first presents you with a severance offer at the time of your departure, it usually means they want something significant in return from you, such as a full general release or a non-compete. That is where the leverage for you to negotiate certain elements of the agreement, including, but not limited to the amount of severance money on the table comes into play.
Bottom line: Severance agreements are not take it or leave it offers, but can be and should be negotiated in order to best protect you and compensate you for your loss of job.
2. Resist Signing the Severance Agreement and Speak To An Employment Attorney
A severance agreement can be a springboard to a settlement agreement with your former employer. Although when first presented to you, a severance agreement is designed in theory to essentially compensate you for any gap in income between your prior job and your next job, it can also serve as a settlement agreement to compensate you for claims that you might have related to an unlawful or improper termination. Although Connecticut is an “at will” employment state and your employer can terminate you without cause, the employer is NOT permitted to terminate you for an unlawful cause such as discrimination or retaliation, or for a breach of an employment contract that provides a certain duration of employment or that spells out certain circumstances under which you may or may not be terminated from your employment. If you believe that your termination was in some way improper or unlawful, then it is important to immediately speak to an employment attorney. It is often the case that with a skilled employment attorney taking the reins, your severance offer can be negotiated into a settlement offer that will compensate you for your legal claims. In many instances, where there are valid legal claims underlying a wrongful termination. We are successful in reaching settlements for our clients during the severance review period, which translates into settlement dollars that exceed the measly severance offer first presented to you.
Bottom line: If you believe your termination was motivated by discrimination or retaliation, or other improper acts, do not rush into signing a severance agreement and seek out an employment lawyer to understand your options for pursuing a settlement or litigation to recover all damages available to you for your legal claims.
3. Know What You Are Getting (Golden Handcuffs) for The Severance Money
Whether you are about to enter into a settlement or a severance agreement, you must understand that this is a quid pro quo and that any monies being offered to you do not come freely. In return for a settlement or severance pay out, you will be asked to agree to certain covenants, referred to as restrictive covenants. The restrictive covenant to be most mindful (SCARED) of is a non-compete. If you accept the settlement or severance offer and execute the agreement with your former employer, you will be bound by all of the terms of the agreement and any breach of any term in the agreement is a breach of contract. As such, if there is a breach, you would be subject to damages which might consist of having to return the severance or settlement dollars or even to pay a pre-determined monetary penalty (known as liquidated damages). Therefore, it is crucial you understand what these covenants mean, how they restrict you and what you must do going forward in order to comply with the contract terms. Ideally, your agreement will not contain a non-compete and we take great efforts to remove those from our clients’ agreements or to narrow their scope and impact. But the first step is for you to be aware of and comprehend the relevant restrictive language. In essence, a non-compete will prohibit you from earning a living in the same field for a certain amount of time and usually within a certain geographic territory. This can be devastating and should be avoided at all costs. There are additional restrictive covenants such as non-solicitation, confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses, which too must be addressed and negotiated so that you are adequately protected from a potential breach down the line.
Bottom line: You must be very aware of what you are giving in return for the money you are getting and there are certain gives, such as a non-compete, that we negotiate and attempt to narrow or ideally remove from these agreements.
4. The Severance Agreement Must Contain Terms That Are Mutual to Both Parties
Confidentiality and disparagement are additional boiler plate clauses often added to these agreements and are almost always first presented as a unilateral restriction on the employee receiving the settlement or severance pay out. However, that does not need to be the case. We are extremely successful in getting these particular covenants to be mutual. In other words, if the agreement requires that you keep certain information concerning your separation from your employer quiet and confidential, including the existence and terms of the agreement itself, it only seems fair that your employer be bound by the same confidentiality requirements. Likewise, if you are being directed not to disparage your former employer, wouldn’t you want your employer to be held to the same standards and to be bound to not disparage you to others and to the public. We have also in many cases negotiated certain language into these agreements that specifically prohibits certain named employees at your former employment from disparaging you, for example your supervisor or manager with whom you might have had a less than amicable professional relationship with and because of whom you might have actually been terminated.
Bottom line: Certain clauses that are initially included as unilateral in a severance agreement can and should be made mutual so that you are just as protected as your former employer after you both have parted ways.
5. Severance Should Always Be Paid Out Up Front in a Lump Sum
Severance will often be offered to you as a payout over a period of time (usually in monthly increments and in coordination with your employer’s regular payroll schedule.) However, severance, like a settlement offer, can be and should be a lump sum. There is no rule that says employers must pay it out to you as they would with your regular paychecks, even though such payments are often considered income and taxed as such. Don’t forget you are no longer employed there, and you are no longer on their payroll. So, any argument they make to pay you as “payroll” is disingenuous and only serves their benefit. In that you will likely be signing a release of all future claims against your employer as well as possibly agreeing to other restrictive covenants described above, in return for the severance payment, you should have the upper hand in the arrangements regarding that payment. Not only is it optimal financially for you to have your severance money paid up front and in a lump sum, but it is optimal from an exposure standpoint. For one, you might not know how financially sound or healthy your employer is. After all, they are terminating employees, which could be a sign that business is bad. Therefore, it is prudent to get your severance dollars up front and in full if possible, in order to avoid any potential inability of them to pay out their remaining obligations. In addition, because any agreement will bind you to comply with the contract terms, where there is a payout arrangement, employers have more leverage to withhold payments to you under the notion that there has been some alleged breach of the contract terms. Lastly, where there is no express severance policy or agreement already in place, there are no hard and fast rules about how much severance you are entitled to. While many employers attempt to correlate your severance payment to how long you have worked there, or to have it reflect a certain number of weeks’ pay for each year you were employed, this is all arbitrary and as a result, usually negotiable.
Bottom line: Severance is not payroll and should be paid to you up front as a lump sum, taking into account not just how long you have been there, but all of the circumstances surrounding your departure, including whether you have potential legal claims and what they are asking you to agree to in return.
ULTIMATE BOTTOM LINE: If you have been presented with a severance agreement/severance policy either at the outset of your employment, during your employment, or at the time of your termination, please do not sign until you have consulted with an employment attorney. We are happy to help you in this situation and we can be retained on a limited hourly basis to guide you through this stressful process.
5 Essential Things To Know About Severance Agreements. Feel free to contact us at any time or call 203-255-4150 or email at email@example.com.
What’s Your Job Strategy In The Face of the New Recession?
The next recession is now here, depending on the of source of information or this source. The Federal Reserve is reversing interest rate hikes to soften the economic expansion and the unemployment rate is at a 50 year low. We are well past the cyclical ten year timeframe as recessions go. What is your strategy to preserve your job in the face of this new recession? What is your strategy if and when you are laid off?
You are probably thinking, “what strategy?” You get up, go to work and hope you can continue to remain an at-will employees until the end of the new pay period, under the presumption you have no control over your job. Better yet, you planned on retiring from your company in the distant future. On the other end of the spectrum, there are employees who think their longevity with their employers will insulate them from any headcount reductions during recessions. Both viewpoints are wrong and employees can control their employment outcomes during a recession.
5 Strategies To Save Your Job During a Recession
The following strategies are followed by our clients when they see the “writing on the wall” by their managers. Although some clients never see the messaging from their employer, we do. Depending on how soon you pick up all the clues determines which strategy to pursue. Hint, the sooner you speak with an employment attorney the better. If we are engaged earlier in the process, we can evaluate and develop an aggressive strategy that will force the employer to maintain your employment and/or pay a larger severance package with more favorable terms.
Plan Ahead and Gather Intelligence From Managers and Coworkers
Are you proactive about your employment or do you follow the wait and see approach? Becoming proactive with your employer means obtaining objective feedback from your managers and coworkers. No, I am not referring to the annual performance review or 360 reviews. A proactive employee will develop an initial assessment of his or her own performance by quietly engaging in one on one discussions with managers and coworkers about their working relationship and performance. You will need to keep detailed notes of these conversations in order to track the information over time and over various contexts. Forget about the formalities of the annual review or the vague performance metrics employers follows. I am talking about all the intel you can gather by having a straight up ever day conversation with your manager and coworkers. Examine the body cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice and the context of conversations in relation to those cues. Observe more instead of being reactionary or defensive. The better you are at this task, the more intelligence you will pick up, as your manager or coworker will not know you are gathering information. Once you collected this information, you will need to strategize how to position yourself as a thought leader, influencer, leader and over-all get the job done kind of employee. Lead by example and always remain the consummate professional during all interactions with your employer and coworkers.
Ironically, your employer is collecting similar information about you and your coworkers. In a recent article from SHRM, “A good way to begin is by collecting information about the organization’s workforce that can be used for long-range planning. ‘[HR] should be looking at the data, knowing who is where in their careers, who is where in their teams’… ‘Are people ready to move into the next position? Are they happy where they are?’ Review job descriptions and tasks and determine whether responsibility for those tasks can be more evenly distributed throughout the team. By understanding the big picture, HR leaders can advise business leaders on how to ready the workforce for future changes without resorting to morale-damaging layoffs.”
File Internal Complaints of Discrimination to Maintain Your Job
Once we determine you are may be the victim of employment discrimination or have other employment claims, we will advise you about bringing these claims to your employers attention without escalating to an external governmental agency. The main idea here is to engage in a protective activity to force your employer to “back the heck off” and cause them to reevaluate your potential termination. Our longest standing record to keep an employee employed using this method is two years (my opposing counsel in that case was not happy, but I was not there to please him).
If necessary, you may need to file your discrimination claims with governmental agencies in order to preserve your legal rights. The same antiretaliation laws apply and employers will back off for a limited period of time in order to avoid you asserting an easy to prove retaliation claim.
Dealing With Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS)
Combatting those inaccurate, one-sided and self-serving performance improvement plans. We wrote about this issue in Are Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS) Illegal? A PIP is a clear indicator you will be terminated and you will need to engage an employment attorney ASAP!
Severance Negotiation Based Years of Service
This strategy is relatively straight forward. If you are slated for termination in a layoff, your employer may have a severance plan governed by ERISA, a federal statute that governs these plans. Essentially, an ERISA severance plan spells out the amount you will be paid a salary continuation based on the number of years you worked for the company. There is one catch, you will need to sign a waiver and release of all your legal claims against the employer in order to receive the payout. You will also need an employment attorney to review the settlement agreement to insert favorable terms or get rid of unfriendly terms like noncompetition agreements. Make sure when speaking with an employment attorney that he or she is an ERISA attorney, as there is a difference. Our ERISA attorneys know how the statute works and will even point out in certain cases that you can create an ERISA plan based on one employee, “you”, even though the employer never created an ERISA plan. Engage us to learn more.
Getting Rid of That Noncompete Agreement on the Way Out
Great, you will be getting terminated but your employer stuck you with a noncompete, either at the start of your job or as part of the severance agreement. What do you do? The noncompete does not benefit you at all, only your employer. Now you have to navigate away from jobs you would normally apply for given your years in the same industry. Is this fair? No. Someone has to pay the utilities, mortgage and household expenses, but do not count on your employer to do you a favor. I have long taken a stand against these selfish one sided agreements and forced employers to rescind them or obtain an order from the court to void them. We can help you remove your noncompete agreement with your employer and make you a free agent in the job market. We will challenge the validity of the agreement with the employer directly and if the employer does not back down, we will take them to court through what is called a declaratory judgment action. Essentially, we ask courts to void the agreement due to lack of intention by the employee to enter into the agreement, aka a lack of consideration.
What’s Your Job Strategy In The Face of the New Recession? If you need more help planning for your future employment issues, please contact an employment attorney in our office. Employment law is all we do. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 203-255-4150.