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Please note that the information contained in this blog is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. Satter Ruhlen Law Firm makes no representation that the information herein reflects the most current state of the law.  This blog is not a substitute for consultation with an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

Rooting Out Racism in the Workplace

By Diane Williamson

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

This month our office is taking part in the Racial Equity Challenge sponsored by the New York State Bar Association. Anyone can participate (no law degree required): https://nysba.org/racialequitychallenge/. In taking part in the Challenge, I have been thinking about different types of racism, e.g., systemic racism, implicit bias, etc. Sometimes from a white perspective, it seems like overt racism is largely over, but what better context than employment discrimination to make us realize that overt racism is still very much alive in the United States.

In 1964, with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government made employment discrimination based on race (and color, religion, sex, and national origin) illegal. Nevertheless, studies show that racist employment practices still exist. Most people are familiar with the study that demonstrated that identical resumes were 50% more likely to get an interview when the name at the top sounded like a white person’s name instead of a black person’s name. A 2017 study found that racist hiring practices have changed little since 1990.

In the landmark case Rogers v. EEOC, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the practice of racially segregating patients in a doctor’s office could amount to discrimination in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, thereby violating Title VII. 454 F.2d 234 (5th Circ. 1971), cert. denied, 406 U.S. 957 (1972). The principal opinion in the case concluded that employment discrimination was not limited to the “isolated and distinguishable events” of “hiring, firing, and promoting.” Id., at 238. Rather, Title VII could also be violated by a work environment “heavily polluted with discrimination,” because of the deleterious effects of such an atmosphere on an employee’s well-being. Id.

Despite the recognition that racism at work could amount to unlawful discrimination, courts have been reluctant to hold that any and all displays of racism rise to the level of changing the workers “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”
In 1982, the Fifth Circuit stated that in order to be unlawful “a discriminatory and offensive work environment [must be] so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of minority group workers.” Vaughn v. Pool Offshore Co., 683 F.2d 922, 924 (5th Cir. 1982) (quoting Rogers v. EEOC, 454 F.2d 234, 238 (5th Cir. 1981). Wow. It is crazy to think that previously workers were told by courts that racism in the workplace was not unlawful unless it completely destroyed their emotional and psychological stability.

In that case, the plaintiff failed in showing that the abusive work environment was unlawfully based on race regardless of the fact that he was called a “nigger,” “coon,” and “black boy” and a pool house nearby had “KKK Headquarters” written on it. Id. at 924. There were several other utterances of racial epithets and a workplace culture of violent hazing. Id. at 923. The court wrote that all the employees used similar racial epithets “without apparent hostility or racial animus.” Id. at 924. Basically, in 1982, the Fifth Circuit court ruled that using racial epithets in the workplace was normal.

Compare that 1982 case to one currently before the Supreme Court. Presently, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether a hostile work environment claim can survive summary judgment when there was racist graffiti (the N-word and two swastikas) and the plaintiff was called “boy” one time—potentially outside of the limitations period. Collier v. Dallas County, 3:17-CV-3362-D. (June 6, 2019 5th Cir.) Justice Kavanaugh in a DC Circuit Court opinion wrote that one instance of the N-word is severe enough to constitute racial harassment. Ayissi-Etoh v. Fanny Mae, 712 F.3d 572 (D.C. Cir. 2013). That being said, Justice Coney Barret ruled against summary judgment in a case with one utterance of the N-word. Terry Smith v. Illinois Department of Transportation (7th Cir. 2019). It is possible that racist graffiti is even more disturbing than a spoken utterance because the worker does not know who wrote the epithet, and the worker must endure it every day along with the knowledge that his coworkers seem to acquiesce to its presence. The Supreme Court decision in this case will help to determine the continued strength and relevance of the Civil Rights Act.

In some ways it seems that Title VII is not keeping up with society’s notions about the unacceptability of racism. Recently, a federal district court dismissed a complaint made by Whole Foods employees that the grocery store was selectively enforcing a dress code and penalizing employees who wore Black Lives Matter facemasks but not other employees who wore other slogans. Meanwhile, Taco Bell apologized for allegedly firing an employee for wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask, offering the longtime employee his job back. The latter reconciliation was due to a Facebook Live post and news coverage, not a court case.

While we do not yet know what effect the Supreme Court’s ruling in the above case will have on the federal discrimination standard, we can take some comfort in the fact that New York recently amended its discrimination law to make it easier to show that harassment is unlawful. Under the new standard, a plaintiff need not show that the harassment is severe or pervasive, but only that it altered the terms and conditions of employment. The employer can defend itself if the complained of conduct did not rise above the level of “petty slights or trivial inconveniences,” but it is hard to imagine that a coworker using a racial epithet could be construed as a “petty slight” in 2021.

Unfortunately, the changes to New York law have yet to be tested in court. We can only hope that our laws against discrimination will not permit racial epithets to persist in the workplace unpunished.

Ask A Worker’s Rights Attorney!

Law Books

The Satter Ruhlen Law Firm presents:

 

Ask A Worker’s Rights Attorney!

A webinar for workers.

Thursday, March 11, 2021 at 6:00 pm

 

Do you work in New York?  Do you have a question about your workplace rights?  This is your chance to ask an attorney about it.  One lawyer, six participants, eight minutes per participant (we’ll have a timer!)  Quick answers to your questions about wage and hour violations, discrimination, harassment, whistleblowing, unionizing, non-compete clauses, and other questions like “can they really do that to me?”

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

Space is limited, so sign up soon!*

Participants will receive a 10% discount on a one-hour consultation with the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm.

Please note that this webinar is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. Participation in the webinar does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like a dedicated one-hour consultation with us, please contact the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

*Registrations will be screened for employees’ protection.

 

Satter Ruhlen presents: Workplace Bullying CLE Feb. 25, 2021

One week to our Workplace Bullying CLE Presentation.  Hope you can join us!

Experiencing Workplace Discrimination? Take Action Sooner Than Later to Preserve Your Rights

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

As the saying goes, time waits for no one. This includes individuals who have experienced discrimination in the workplace.

Under the New York State Human Rights Law [“NYSHRL”], it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate based on an individual’s age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status, or status as a victim of domestic violence. Your right to bring a discrimination claim against your employer for a violation of the NYSHRL is subject to time limits known as statutes of limitations. If you file your complaint after the expiration of the limitations period, you will likely find your claim will not be heard.

A discrimination complaint under the NYSHRL must be filed with the Division of Human Rights within one year of the last act of discrimination (or three years for gender-based discrimination). Alternatively, an employee can file suit directly in the New York State Supreme Court within three years from the last act of discrimination based on any status protected by NYSHRL. Be aware that the limitations period to bring an employment claim under Federal anti-discrimination law is significantly shorter. If you want to preserve your rights under Federal law, the charge of employment discrimination must be filed with the Federal Equal Opportunity Commission within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place. The 180 calendar day filing deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency where you work enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis. This is the case for New Yorkers.

If you think you have waited too long to initiate an action against your employer, you may catch a break thanks to one of Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Disaster Emergency measures. Back on March 20, 2020, Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.8, tolled the statute of limitations contained in the CPLR and other “procedural law of the state” for the commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding. That order was extended monthly until Executive Order 202.67, dated October 5, 2020 affirmatively stated that there will be no more extensions after November 3, 2020. These Executive Orders may afford you additional time to bring your claim for employment discrimination.

If you believe you are a victim of employment discrimination and are contemplating legal action but have questions about whether your claim is time-barred, contact a lawyer to discuss your options.

The Disturbing Racial Realities Of Workplace Safety

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

Even before COVID-19, workplaces were deadly places for Black, Latinx, and Asian American Workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, released on December 16, shows shocking disparities along racial lines in worker fatality increases between 2015 and 2019.

It’s bad enough that worker deaths across the board have risen by 10%. What is more frightening is that where white worker deaths have risen by 1.7%, Latinx workers have seen a 20% increase; Black worker deaths have increased by 28%, and Asian American deaths have risen by 59%. That’s not a typo. Fifty-nine percent more Asian American workers died in 2019 than in 2015.

In a statement released by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health [“NCOSH”] on December 21, NCOSH co-executive director Jessica Martinez says “The answer lies in decades of racism and discrimination, with workers of color routinely being assigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.” The NCOSH statement notes that the BLS statistics do not account for COVID-19 deaths. Moreover, future statistics likely will not reflect the effect of COVID-19 on workplace fatalities because even though COVID-19 may be contracted at the workplace, death resulting from COVID-19 does not take place at work, so data collection will miss those fatalities. Meanwhile, the CDC reports that Black or African-American individuals are 2.8 times more likely than whites to die of COVID-19. 

On Day 1 of his new job, President Biden called upon OSHA to issue clear guidance on COVID-19 safety. OSHA responded with Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace, issued January 29, 2021. The guidance does not contain any surprises; many workplaces have already implemented many of OSHA’s recommendations by enforcing physical distancing, installing barriers, instituting face mask requirements, and implementing cleaning and disinfection procedures.

The OSHA guidance is non-binding, meaning it contains recommended COVID-19 safety procedures, but so far no one is required to abide by the guidance.However, the Biden administration has ordered OSHA to consider issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard [“ETS”] no later than March 15, 2021. A standard, unlike guidance, is enforceable, and an employer may face consequences for not abiding by it. If OSHA follows Biden’s recommendation, the ETS will likely include many of the measures that appear in the current guidance.

Which is a good start. But workplace safety experts interviewed by Safety and Health Magazine say that racial disparities in workplace safety won’t go away without significant structural change, including measures to eliminate workplace harassment, training inequities, and barriers to advancement. Organizations all over the country – including the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm – are participating in diversity and racial equity programming designed to help employers and workers recognize and examine unconscious biases, remove recruitment barriers, understand the racist history behind familiar structures and processes, and improve workplace communication – especially the listening part, which the safety experts say is one of the major barriers to equitable workplace safety.

The key to whether OSHA’s initiatives eliminate racial disparities in workplace safety is not just in the implementation of long-overdue COVID-19 safety guidance. It will have to do with how hard we work together to make sure no one gets left out when that guidance is implemented.

If you believe your workplace is more dangerous due to discrimination, it’s not a bad idea to contact an employment law attorney admitted to practice in your jurisdiction.  The attorney will help you determine what actions make sense for you to take to get and stay safe.

Workplace Bullying—Is it illegal?

By Diane Williamson
Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

Are you being bullied at work?


Unfortunately, more often than not, the law will not offer protection or remedy if you find yourself in a toxic work environment resulting from bullying by your co-workers or managers. Indeed, there is no law against workplace bullying in New York, and, as court decisions indicate, the law does not create “a general civility code” for the workplace.


Nevertheless, there are some instances when workplace bullying may be illegal. The law may protect you if the bullying is targeted at you for a specific reason such as your race, gender, or other classification that is protected by the law. Under New York anti-discrimination law bullying is illegal if it is based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, veteran status, genetic makeup, disability, age, or sex, gender, sexual identity, familial status, marital status, and domestic violence victim status.


So, what might actionable bullying look like? Imagine an employee who is targeted because of her age or because she asked for a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Not all of the harassing behaviors need to make explicit reference to the protected characteristic in order for the bullying to count as discrimination. Also, a combination of bullying based on more than one of the protected categories counts as harassment. And the employee who complains about harassment need not be the intended recipient of the abusive communications—if the harassers are speaking derogatorily about someone else, those comments may still contribute to the hostility of the work environment. While the plaintiff must demonstrate that the harassment altered the terms and conditions of employment, the harassing behaviors might also take place outside of work—on social media, for example.


In 2019 New York updated its law that prohibits harassment to better prevent against all forms of discrimination at the workplace. Now New York law instructs courts to use a stricter standard. While courts should not consider “petty slights and offences” to be harassment, bullying that targets someone because of protected characteristics should be considered discrimination if it changes the terms and conditions of employment for the victim.


In addition to New York’s anti-discrimination laws, there are other laws that hypothetically could offer some relief for bullied employees. For example, bullying might be illegal if it is in retaliation for making a discrimination complaint, complaining about unsafe or illegal activity, making a wage and hour complaint, or because of lawful recreational or political activities conducted outside of work. Nevertheless, the law may be less likely to punish bullying for some these reasons.


If the bully’s behavior rises to the level of being “outrageous” and “intolerable in a civilized society,” you may have a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the bully, or if you have been the victim of offensive touching or threatened touching, you may have a claim for civil battery or assault. If the workplace bullying causes stress that exceeds normal work stress and it causes you to be unable to work, you may also have a Workers’ Compensation claim. Of course, the only way to truly gauge whether your claim is likely to be successful is to speak with a lawyer.


If you are faced with regular bullying at work, it is a good idea to keep a record of your experiences. You will most likely forget the little details of the day-to-day harassment unless you write them down. If you send an email to yourself that recounts the events of the day (not on your work email), the record will also be time-stamped. It might be the case that you only come to realize later that the bullying is related to a protected characteristic. To be on the safe side, start documenting the bullying as soon as it starts on the chance that you may later realize that it is illegal. Plus, writing down the harassing behavior may help to delay your response and defuse a potentially volatile situation. Overall, take care of yourself and start applying for new jobs. Hopefully, a better situation is right around the corner.

The COVID-19 Vaccination and Your Workplace. Know Your Rights!

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights. 

As COVID-19 vaccines become available, you may find your employer encouraging, or mandating, vaccination to slow the spread of the virus and to keep yourself, co-workers, customers, and the general public, healthy. Below are some scenarios that might come up and an explanation of your rights should you face one of these situations.

Can my employer ask for proof that I have received the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [“EEOC”] guidance, your employer can ask for proof that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Simply requesting proof of a COVID-19 vaccine is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, as such, is not a disability-related inquiry that would trigger Americans with Disabilities Act [“ADA”] (42 USC §12101, et seq.) protections. This means your employer is free to ask if you have been vaccinated and ask for documentation of this. Should your employer ask for proof that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine, make sure you don’t accidentally turn over any additional personal health information. If your employer presses you for information about why you have not received the vaccination and your response requires sharing information about your disability, it may be time to consult an attorney to discuss your rights.

Can my employer demand that I receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment?

Yes. According to EEOC guidance, when your employer mandates vaccination for protection against contracting COVID-19, administration of the vaccine is not a medical exam, nor does it seek information about your current health status or impairments. The EEOC’s interpretation allows your employer to demand that you receive the vaccine as a condition of employment. However, if your employer mandates COVID-19 vaccination, you have the right to request a reasonable accommodation if you either cannot, or will not, be vaccinated for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs. If you cannot receive the vaccination and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely can’t come up with a reasonable accommodation, the likely result is termination.

Do I have ADA protection if my employer administers the COVID-19 vaccine ? 

Yes. The pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about your disability. According to EEOC guidance, when these questions are asked by your employer (this might happen in the healthcare context), they meet the ADA definition of a “disability-related” inquiry, and, as a result, you are entitled to ADA protection. The ADA requires that the disability-related screening questions be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” If you are concerned that your employer’s mandatory vaccination program does not meet this threshold, contact an attorney for advice.

Can I get fired if my employer requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment, and I refuse to do so because of my disability?

You should not be summarily fired for refusing to get vaccinated because of your disability. Instead, your employer should determine if you, as an unvaccinated employee, pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of yourself or others, and whether the threat can be eliminated or reduced by a reasonable accommodation. If your disability prevents you from being vaccinated and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, you may be terminated.

To assess the risk of having you at the workplace unvaccinated, your employer must conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether your presence in the workplace creates a direct threat to yourself or others. According to EEOC guidance, a conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that you, as an unvaccinated individual, will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If the individualized assessment results in a finding of direct threat, your employer should include you in an interactive process to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow you to continue to work.

As advised by the EEOC, your employer may lawfully exclude you from the physical workplace, but you should not be summarily fired, otherwise disciplined, or suffer retaliation for refusing the vaccination. Instead, your employer should evaluate whether an accommodation, such a teleworking, is an option. If there is no accommodation available, your employer should determine if you are eligible to take leave under federal, state, or local leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, or under the employer’s leave-of-absence policies.

Can I be fired if my employer requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment and I am unwilling to get vaccinated because of my religious beliefs?

You should not be summarily fired if you refuse to get vaccinated based on your religious beliefs. If your religious beliefs prevent you from getting vaccinated, and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, the likely result is termination.  

It is important to notify your employer that your religious beliefs prevent you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Given the breadth of the EEOC’s definition of religion, your employer is unlikely to question the nature of your beliefs, however, take note that your religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents you from receiving the vaccine must be sincere.

Once your employer is on notice, you must be provided a reasonable accommodation that allows you to continue work without receiving the vaccination unless the accommodation poses an undue hardship on your employer. Courts have defined “undue hardship” in this context as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. The determination of whether an accommodation is reasonable often turns on the nature of your job and your employer’s business. Depending on your job duties, your employer might allow you to continue to work wearing additional PPE or have you reassigned to an available position that limits interaction with others, including remote work.

If there is no reasonable accommodation that would allow you, as an unvaccinated employee, to continue your job it would be lawful for the employer to exclude you from the workplace. If there is no accommodation available, your employer should determine if you are eligible to take leave under federal, state, or local leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, or under the employer’s leave-of-absence policies.

Getting “RIF’d” During COVID-19

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights. 

The pandemic has closed a lot of doors.  Currently about 12.6 million people are unemployed in the U.S.  Everyone who is still employed dreads getting the infamous Reduction In Force [“RIF”] or “pink slip.”  Here’s what the Employer owes you under Federal and State WARN Acts if you get “RIF’d”:

The Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act [“WARN”] (23 U.S.C. §2101 et seq.), generally, requires Employers with 100 or more full-time Employees to provide written notice to affected Employees, the State, and your Union president at least 60 days prior to a plant closing or mass layoff.  Penalties for violations can include back pay and benefits for each Employee up to 60 days, as well as civil penalties. The deadline to file a lawsuit varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (for more specificity, call a qualified labor and employment attorney in your jurisdiction!)

Now the bad news: Temps and strikers do not get WARN protection. A plant closing must involve at least 50 Workers at a single site, or a closing plus a layoff that, combined, affects 50 or more Workers.  A mass layoff involves either 500 or more Workers at a single site during a 30-day period, or layoffs of 50-499 Workers at a single site if the layoffs affect at least 33% of the Workers at that site.  A temporary layoff can trigger WARN obligations if it exceeds 6 months. A 50% or more reduction in hours for 50 or more Workers may also require an Employer to provide WARN notice.

Under normal circumstances, the New York State WARN Act [“NY WARN”] adds an additional 30 days to the notice requirement for some Employers, for a total required notice of 90 days. New York Labor Law §§ 860 et seq.  NY Warn applies to businesses with only 50 or more full time Workers.  Under NY Warn, the Employer must provide notice not only for plant closings and mass layoffs, but also if the plant is relocating, or if 25 or more Workers experience a 50% reduction in hours.

But on April 17, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 202.19, relaxing some of those requirements for Employers who initially laid off Employees (and complied with WARN the first time) and then hired them back after receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.  If Employers institute another round of layoffs after receiving PPP funding, they only have to provide notice “as soon as practicable.” 

On November 11, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed an amendment to the NY WARN that additionally requires Employers to provide notice to chief officials of local government and school districts, and to every locality that provides police, fire prevention, EMS or ambulance, or other emergency services to the job site. 

What about furloughs?  Furloughs involve reduced hours or days for a finite amount of time.  So whether a furlough triggers Federal or NYS WARN depends on its duration, how many Employees are affected, and how many hours are reduced.  Under WARN, if a furlough originally intended to last three months is extended to seven months due to unforeseeable circumstances, the Employer has to give notice when it realizes it needs to extend the duration. Employers aren’t supposed to be able to play games with the timing and extent of their layoffs to avoid WARN obligations.  It’s complicated, but there’s an “aggregation” rule that is supposed to stop Employers from gaming the system by implementing staggered layoffs.

Even if your layoff fits the above circumstances, there are some reasons the Employer may not be required to provide you notice:  the notice period can be shortened or bypassed under three exceptions:  the “faltering company” exception, the “unforeseeable business circumstance” exception, and the “natural disaster” exception. 

The “faltering company” exception is available when advance notice to Employees would interfere with the company’s ability to obtain new capital or business that could help the company avoid a shutdown or layoff. 20 CFR §§639.9(a)(3)-(4). The Employer has to have a reasonable, good faith belief that the notice would interfere with, for example, its ability to secure a loan. 

The “unforeseeable business circumstances” exception occurs when a “sudden, dramatic, and unexpected action or condition outside of the Employer’s control” causes a layoff or closure.  20 CFR §639.9(b)(1). For example, the unexpected cancellation of a lucrative contract could be an unforeseeable business circumstance.  The unforeseeability is defined as “reasonable business judgment” at the time of the occurrence—not by a court looking at the situation in retrospect. An Employer is required to give as much notice as practicable when there is an “unforeseeable business circumstance” layoff.

The “natural disaster” exception applies if a layoff is directly caused by a natural disaster. 20 CFR §693.9(c). For example, if a tornado destroys a manufacturing plant, resulting in the Workers there being laid off, the exception applies. But if a tornado leaves the plant standing and wipes out a lot of other businesses, causing an economic downturn, the “natural disaster” exception does not apply because the tornado is not the direct cause of the lack of work. 

A Florida court recently pondered whether the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an unforeseeable circumstance, natural disaster, or special financial circumstance that would excuse an Employer from providing notice. In Benson et al. v. Enterprise, et al., the court concluded that COVID-19 might be a natural disaster, but that the layoff in question was not a direct result of the pandemic. 6:20-cv-00891 (MD Fla. Jan. 4, 2021). Thus, the Employer could not resort to the “natural disaster” exception. But the parties are still litigating –further discovery is required to determine whether the pandemic is an “unforeseeable business circumstance.” So, could a state ordering all businesses to close for three months constitute an unforeseeable business circumstance?  You can bet your hat Employers will argue it does.

Bottom line, Federal and State WARN acts are designed to give you a little safety net in the event of an extended layoff or plant closing.  It won’t make you rich, but it may help you get through the winter. If you think you’ve been RIFfed without proper notification, call a qualified labor and employment attorney in your jurisdiction to learn more about your rights.

Faced with a Severance Agreement? Take Time Before You Sign!

Diane Williamson, Esq.

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

When you sign a severance agreement, you are likely agreeing to release your employer from all potential liability under, inter alia, state and federal employment laws. If your employer presents you with a severance agreement, you have little to gain, and potentially a lot to lose, if you succumb to the employer’s pressure to sign the document without taking time to consider the terms and consult with a lawyer or other trusted advisor.


Does the agreement contain a non-compete clause that unreasonably restricts your ability to find work? Have you been a victim of discrimination? Has your employer paid out all the wages and vacation pay due? Did you complain about unsafe or illegal working conditions prior to your termination? Could a legal claim against your employer provide you with leverage to negotiate improved terms? Will you be eligible for unemployment benefits if you receive severance pay?

For answers to these questions and many others that may arise, take time to consult with an attorney before you sign a severance agreement.

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