New York is considered an “at-will” employment state, meaning employers may lay off an employee at any time, for any legal reason, or for no reason at all. Knowing how to protect your rights after a layoff is important. Understandably, many laid-off employees are so surprised they may end up walking away without enforcing their rights.

If you’ve been laid off in New York City, the employment attorneys at Lipsky Lowe LLP are here to help. You may be entitled to severance pay. If your employer violated federal or state employment laws when conducting the lay-off, you may have a right to pursue damages in a civil lawsuit. Discussing your case with a skilled attorney can help you understand your rights and protect yourself. 

Unlawful Layoffs

Although New York is considered an at-will employment state, employers cannot fire employees in violation of state and federal civil rights laws. Suppose you’re in a protected class based on your sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, age, or race, and you can prove you were laid off because of it. In that case, you may have the right to pursue a civil lawsuit for damages. Additionally, you cannot be fired for using Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits due to your or your close relative’s illness or medical issue. 

Similarly, employers cannot lay off an employee in violation of the employee’s employment agreement. Suppose an employment agreement lists specific reasons for which an employee can be fired and states that the employment relationship will continue for five years, employers cannot violate those provisions. Doing so may be considered a breach of contract and give the employee a right to pursue a civil claim. 

Am I Entitled to Severance After Being Laid Off in New York City?

Employers are not legally required to offer employees severance agreements under New York or federal law. Some companies offer severance benefits as part of their policies, but it is discretionary. Larger corporations often base severance plans on a standard formula. Many offer laid-off employees one to four weeks of pay per year they’ve worked for the employer, capped at a certain number of weeks.

If your employer has offered you a severance package, consulting with an attorney is important. In exchange for accepting the benefits of a severance package, your employer will require you to waive your right to pursue any legal claims you may have against the employer. If you’ve been offered a settlement agreement, the company may be trying to stop you from speaking to an attorney and pressuring you to give up your right to pursue a civil claim against them. 

An attorney can advise you as to whether you have a claim against your employer based on discrimination or violation of another local, state, or federal law. Pursuing a civil claim may be more valuable than accepting a settlement offer. Your attorney can pursue a better settlement offer for you by negotiating with your employer.

You should also be careful about any restrictions and covenants included in the severance agreement. There may be post-employment restrictions preventing you from working for your former employer’s competitors or other post-employment restrictions. Ultimately, an attorney can help you make an informed decision about whether accepting a severance offer is your best option. 

Your Rights Under the NY WARN Act

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) provides protection to employers and their families by requiring employers to provide notice of certain mass layoffs and plant closings. The act is intended to allow employees enough time to make arrangements for retraining or a new job. 

When employers violate the WARN Act, employees or a unit of local government may bring an individual or class action lawsuit to pursue damages, including back wages, employment benefits, civil penalties, and attorneys’ fees and costs. The Act requires qualifying New York businesses to provide employees with at least 90 days’ notice of employment loss in the following situations:

  • Plant closings
  • Mass layoffs
  • Relocation
  • Certain reductions in work hours

In June 2023, the New York Department of Labor (DOL) amended the WARN Act. The amendments, which are now effective, impose significant additional requirements on employers engaging in mass layoffs. The additional regulations make it more difficult for employers to qualify as exempt from the 90-day notice period. 

Employers must submit documentation demonstrating their eligibility for the exception. The amendments also expand the content of notices. For example, notices must now include information on severance packages or financial incentives if the employee remains working until the effective date of the mass layoff, relocation, or employment loss. If the employer expects the action to be temporary, the notice must include the estimated duration.

Payment in Lieu of Notice

Under the WARN Act, employers may make payments in lieu of notice of separation or notice when the following conditions have been met;

  • The employer has a policy requiring it to give employees a definite period of notice before a layoff or separation
  • The employee is laid off or separated without the required notice, and 
  • The employer pays the employee a sum equal to the employee’s regular wages and the value of the costs of any employment benefits for the required period of the notice

However, this new section doesn’t materially change the existing framework for employers to reduce their liability by paying wages and providing benefits during the period of violation. 

Employers Must Notify Employees of Business Sales

The WARN Act requires employers to notify employees when they sell all or part of a business. When the transfer of employees is one of the conditions of the purchase agreement, and the buyer violates the agreement by not employing the seller’s employees, the buyer is required to provide employees with the required notice.

Have You Been Laid Off in New York City? We Can Help

Being laid off from work can be devastating and cause significant anxiety. If you’ve been laid off, it’s crucial you understand your rights. We can help you understand whether you have a right to pursue a claim against your employer. We can also help you negotiate your severance agreement when possible. Don’t hesitate to contact Lipsky Lowe LLP to discuss your situation with a skilled attorney.