Employment in New York is typically at will, meaning an employee can be terminated for any reason. Employers can lay off employees during the COVID-19 pandemic due to economic constraints. However, employers cannot terminate employment while discriminating based on an employee’s membership in a protected class. Additionally, employers cannot wrongfully terminate an employee in violation of an employment contract.
You might wonder about your legal options if you were terminated during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may have a valid legal claim if your employer terminated your job or experienced harassment or other discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. You only have a limited time to pursue compensation. Contact the experienced employment attorneys at Lipsky Lowe LLP to schedule a free case evaluation and learn more about your legal options.
Do I Have a Legal Claim for My Wrongful COVID Termination?
Many states, including New York, are at-will employment states. Employers can fire employees for any reason or no reason. Financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic are legitimate reasons to conduct layoffs and terminate employees. Some layoffs, however, may be illegal or unlawful.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers in New York City and throughout the country laid off employees due to shutdowns and the overall economic downturn. Small and large companies have been reducing their workforce through massive layoffs. Some layoffs are legitimate. Other times, layoffs are merely an excuse for an employer to discriminate against a protected class of employees.
Employers Cannot Violate Employment Contracts
When an employee signs an employment contract, an employer must abide by the terms of the contract. Employers with contracts may be protected against being laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Executives, specific salespeople, and professionals often sign individual contracts with employers. The contract may have a clause establishing the conditions under which an employer can terminate an employee.
If you believe your employer has terminated you in violation of your employment contract, you may have a right to pursue remedies, including compensation, through a breach of contract claim. Reaching out to an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case is important.
Collective Contracts and COVID Terminations
Collective contracts, also called collective bargaining agreements, usually apply to labor unions. Sometimes collective bargaining agreements have a provision prohibiting layoffs of employees within the bargaining unit. These provisions are often included in public employment contracts, such as an agreement for civil service workers or in a police department. If you are a union member and were laid off, you may be entitled to remedies through the collective bargaining agreement.
Layoffs Based on Unlawful Discrimination During COVID-19
Employers can use mass layoffs as a disguise to cover up laying off employees based on unlawful discrimination. In other words, an employer may use COVID-19 as an excuse to lay off people in a protected class, such as older workers, pregnant workers, or because of the group’s religious beliefs or race. While many employers have faced legitimate economic hardship because of shutdowns, and layoffs could help them financially, it’s still unlawful for them to terminate employment based on unlawful discrimination.
New York State and New York City Human Rights Law
In addition to federal law, New York City employees are protected by the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law. Specifically, the New York City Human Rights Law protects against employers terminating the employment of employees based on their membership in the following protected classes:
- Immigration or citizenship status
- Gender (including sexual harassment)
- Gender identity
- Marital status and partnership status
- National origin
- Pregnancy and lactation accommodations
- Sexual orientation
- Status as a Veteran or Active Military Service Member
- Arrest or conviction record
- Credit history
- Pre-employment marijuana testing
- Unemployment status
- Salary history
- Sexual and reproductive health decisions
- Status as a victim of stalking, domestic violence, and sex offenses
Unlawful Termination Due to Retaliation
Under the New York City Human Rights Law, employers cannot retaliate against employees for challenging or filing a claim about their employer’s discriminatory practices. As long as you have a reasonable good-faith belief that illegal activity is occurring at your workplace, you will be protected, even if it turns out that you were mistaken. Specifically, your employer cannot retaliate against you and fire you because you:
- Opposed an unlawful discriminatory practice toward yourself or someone else
- Made a charge or filed a complaint of discrimination with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, your employer, or another agency
- Testified, assisted, or participated in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing related to something prohibited by the New York City Human Rights Law
Unlawful Termination Based on Age or Disability
COVID-19 allowed employers to eliminate a group they perceived as unwanted. An employer may use the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for laying off older workers in hopes of hiring younger employees after the COVID-19 pandemic. You may have a valid claim if you suspect your employer has terminated your employment because of your age, especially if you are over 40.
Employers cannot terminate your employment because of your disability. Employers may use COVID-19 as cover to terminate the employment of individuals with disabilities. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to meet the needs of employees with physical, medical, mental, or psychological impairment or a history or record of such impairment. They’re also required to make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth, medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, religious observance, lactation, and status as a victim of domestic violence.
Discuss Your Case with an Experienced Employment Attorney
If you experience a COVID-19 termination based on unlawful discrimination, you may have a claim for compensation from your employer. Employers cannot terminate employees based on unlawful discrimination or retaliation for filing a discrimination claim. Additionally, employers cannot fire employees in violation of their employment contracts. You may be entitled to compensation for your lost wages and other remedies. Contact the skilled employment attorneys at Lipsky Lowe LLP today to schedule a free initial consultation.