Fired After COVID-19? Was it Legal?
When you were laid off from your job, your boss was highly apologetic. He reiterated that it was not you: COVID-19 has been wreaking havoc with your industry, and he doesn’t have the financial resources to keep everyone on. He assured you that once things improved, you would be called back.
You believed him. You’ve worked for the company for nearly 20 years and been commended many times for your professionalism and dedication. This is why you were stunned to find out that the only employees laid off were those in your age group (over 40). Younger workers were kept on and, according to co-workers you’ve remained in touch with, even given some extra hours in the wake of the layoffs!
Is this legal?
There’s no denying that COVID-19 has left businesses across California with a legitimate reason to reduce their workforces.
On March 4, Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency that forced nonessential businesses to close and, when possible, transition their workforces online. More recently, the governor’s office responded to a growing number of COVID-19 cases by ordering businesses like restaurants, malls, and beauty salons to close their indoor operations. The result has been an unprecedented number of layoffs and rising unemployment levels in certain industries, such as retail, dining out, and entertainment.
While it is not illegal for an employer to terminate a worker as part of a workforce reduction due to economic necessity, some may use the crisis as an excuse to terminate workers who:
- Are members (or perceived to be members) of a protected class; or
- Have exercised a legal right, such a reporting sexual harassment or requesting medical leave; or
- Engaged in whistleblowing
If you’re concerned that your COVID-related ‘layoff’ was an unlawful violation in disguise, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you one of a few employees let go, or one of a larger group?
- If the latter, does this group have any characteristics in common, such as age, gender, or race?
- Is there reason to believe that you were targeted for a reason unrelated to COVID-19? For example, did you recently report a member of upper management for sexual harassment or complain that you were not getting paid overtime as required by law?If any of these questions have troubling answers (a group layoff mainly affected female or older employees or you were given notice a week after you reported the company for wrongdoing), it is possible that the company is using the crisis as an excuse to carry out a wrongful layoff or termination.
California employers cannot use COVID-19 as a guise to make an otherwise unlawful termination legal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that they won’t try. If it happens to you, a California employment lawyer can help you hold your employer accountable for violating your rights during a time of crisis.
For more information about employee rights in California during COVID-19, check out our guide here.
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DISCLAIMER: This article does not provide legal advice and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.