Your termination rights

Alan Ludmer

By Alan Ludmer

There are few things in life more awful than getting fired. Psychologists say that it can be the emotional equivalent of the death of a loved one. Even if your separation is voluntary, it can be very traumatic. When termination is involuntary, it can be gut-wrenching. We are seldom in a position to think clearly.

Whether you leave your job voluntarily or through a termination or layoff, there are a number of loose ends you will want to tie up before you walk out the door.

Severance pay

No law requires an employer to provide severance pay to employees whom the employer terminates or lays off. Nevertheless, many employers may offer one or two months’ salary to employees who are forced to leave their jobs through no fault of their own. Some employers may be more generous to long-term employees, giving perhaps one month’s pay for every year an employee worked for the company.

While no law requires severance pay, an employer may be legally obligated to give you severance pay if it promised to do so — for example, through:

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• A written contract stating that the employer will pay you severance 

• A promise of severance pay in an employee handbook or manual 

• A long history of the company’s paying severance to other employees in your position 

• An oral promise to pay you severance — although you may run into difficulties proving the promise existed. 

A severance package can include more than just money. If you are in a position to negotiate a package (perhaps your termination is questionable and your employer wants to keep you from going to court), consider asking for these other benefits:

Insurance benefits. Health insurance continuation laws allow you to keep the same health care you had with your employer but require you to pay the full cost of the premiums for continued coverage. There is, however, nothing in these laws that prevents your employer from picking up the tab if it agrees to do so as part of a severance package.

Uncontested unemployment compensation. Sometimes, employers will try to contest the unemployment claim of a terminated worker. Ask your employer to agree not to do so. It will make getting unemployment benefits a lot easier.

Outplacement services. Outplacement firms help employees find new jobs. They may offer counseling, job skills training, tips on resume and cover letter writing, and leads on potential jobs. In addition, they may give you a place where you can use a computer, receive faxes, and have a receptionist answer the phone. Many employers are now paying for these types of services as part of a severance plan. 

References. If you are leaving your job under less-than-pleasant circumstances, you might work with your employer to come up with a mutually agreeable letter of reference. 

Final paycheck

Many states have laws that specify when departing employees must be given their final paycheck. Often, the outcome depends on whether you are leaving because you quit or because you were fired or laid off.

For example, in some states, employees must be given their final paycheck immediately or within a certain number of hours if they are terminated or laid off, but not until the next scheduled payday if they quit. Some of these state laws also specify whether your accrued, but unused, vacation pay must be included in your final paycheck. For more information, contact your state’s labor department.

Thoughts

It is important to get this out of the way so that you can begin to focus on your next steps. However, make sure to get what you are due and try to negotiate your best deal. Don’t sign anything before you understand it clearly and have gotten your best deal. If necessary, retain legal council.

Seek to keep this professional and try not to burn bridges. If necessary, make a third party the bad guy. You never know who knows who.