Most private-sector employees in the United States are employed at-will, which means that their employers can terminate their job at any time, for any reason or no reason at all—barring discrimination.
This means that many newly terminated employees are taken by surprise. While some employers may provide warnings and advance notice of termination, others move swiftly and unexpectedly. If you've recently lost your job, you may be wondering what your rights are.
Because a layoff can happen to anyone, often without warning, it is extremely important to be prepared to change jobs. Periodically update your resume, even if you don’t think you will need it soon. Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date, and keep in contact with your network. Have a few potential references in your back pocket, so that you won’t have to start from scratch if you lose your job.
Preparing yourself for all outcomes will allow for a smooth transition if you need to make any change in employment.
Fortunately, terminated employees do have certain rights. In addition to a final paycheck, employees could be entitled to things like continued health insurance coverage, extended benefits, severance pay, and unemployment compensation. It is important to know exactly what your rights are as an employee when you lose your job.
Your Rights When Your Employment Is Terminated
Jay Warren, counsel in the New York office of Bryan Cave LLP, shares his expertise on employee rights and options for seeking assistance if you have questions about those rights if you believe you have been discriminated against and/or have been subjected to wrongful termination.
Sources of Employee Rights
Contract Rights: Employees who have an individual contract with their employer or employees covered by a union/collective bargaining agreement would be covered under the stipulations in the contract if their employment is terminated.
Company Policy: When a company plans layoffs, it may have a severance plan in effect. If so, severance pay may be provided if your employment is terminated.
Statutory Rights: Statutory rights are those provided by federal or state law. They include unemployment insurance, advance notification of the closing of or a substantial layoff at a facility (depending on the size of the company), anti-discrimination laws, and anti-retaliation laws.
Getting Information on Your Rights: When you're not sure about your rights, the best place to start is with the company Human Resources department. Even if they are in the process of terminating your employment, they can answer questions, let you know what company benefits you are eligible for, and guide you through the process of leaving employment.
FAQs About Being Terminated From a Job
No matter how much notice you received before losing your job, or how well-prepared you are to embark on a job search, you probably have questions about what happens next. Some of the most commonly asked questions about termination from employment are:
- Can a company fire me after I give notice? (Answer: in most cases, yes. But there are exceptions.)
- Have I been wrongfully terminated? (Answer: If discrimination was involved in your job loss, absolutely. There are other factors, too, that may determine whether your termination was wrongful.)
- Am I eligible for unemployment? (Answer: maybe. Don’t assume that just because you’ve been terminated, you’re ineligible. Your state department of labor will be able to advise you.)
- How does severance and vacation pay affect unemployment? (Answer: different states have different policies about severance, vacation pay, and unemployment.)
- What happens to my 401(k)? (Answer: you have a lot of options, including leaving your money where it is until you land at a new employer.)
When You Need Help
If you feel that you have been discriminated against or haven't been treated according to the law or company policy, you can get assistance.
The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, has information on each law that regulates employment and advice on where and how to file a claim. Your state labor department may also be able to assist you, depending on state law and the circumstances.
Also, local bar associations often have a referral service and may even have a hotline you can call to find an employment lawyer. Keep in mind that you will need to pay for an attorney's services, although some will provide the initial consultation free of charge.
The information contained in this article is not tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current tax or legal advice, please consult with an accountant or an attorney.