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Laid off from work? Here’s what you need to know.

Laid off, let go, furloughed —they all mean the same thing: you lost your job, and it’s not your fault. Being laid off from your job is different from being fired, but it can feel just as awful. A lay off occurs when your employer ends your employment for reasons unrelated to your performance or conduct. Frequently, employers lay off workers because of financial reasons or changes in business. If you’ve been laid off, here are some issues to consider:

Severance pay

Although the law doesn’t require severance pay, some employers offer severance pay.  Check your offer letter, employee handbook, or collective bargaining agreement to find out if your employer has a severance policy or plan. Or you can ask your supervisor, coworkers, or human resources (HR). If your employer offers severance, they will likely present you with a severance agreement. Review the agreement carefully and consider talking to an attorney before signing it. Severance agreements generally require you to waive the right to file any claims or legal actions against the employer.

Final paycheck after being laid off

In many states, the law sets a deadline for your employer to pay your final paycheck. For example, DC law requires employers to pay a final paycheck no later than one business day following an involuntary termination, which includes a lay-off or reduction-in-force (RIF).  Also, find out if your employer has a policy to pay out any accrued unused paid leave at termination. If so, your final paycheck should include payment for unused leave per your employer’s policy and the law.  And if your employer fails to pay on time, a court could award you double or even triple the amount of your final paycheck. Additionally, if you must take legal action to recover unpaid wages, a court may order the employer to reimburse your legal fees.


Did you have health care coverage through your employer’s group health plan? If so, depending on the type and size of your employer, you may be eligible to continue coverage under COBRA. COBRA coverage is generally much more expensive.  However, it will enable you to continue your current health care benefits until you get new health insurance. If you are eligible for COBRA, your employer must provide you notice of your rights, including your deadline to enroll.

Non-compete agreements and non-solicitation agreements

A non-compete agreement prohibits an employee from working for a competitor or starting a competing business. A non-solicitation agreement prohibits an employee from taking the employer’s customers and/or employees. Many employers require workers to sign non-compete agreements and/or non-solicitation agreements. Frequently, employers require new hires to sign these agreements; you may not even remember signing one. What most people don’t know is that not all non-compete agreements are enforceable. For example, if the agreement is too broad, either in time or scope, a court can decide not to enforce it or to amend it.

Reason for termination

Most people are employed at-will, which means either you or your employer can terminate the relationship at any time and for any reason, except an illegal reason. Find out why your employer ended your employment. Making up a reason to fire someone may be evidence of illegal discrimination or retaliation or some other type of wrongful termination. If your employer won’t provide a reason for ending your employment, or if the reason seems suspicious, you may want to talk to an employment attorney.

Arbitration agreement

Before you initiate legal action, figure out if you signed an arbitration agreement. Some employers require employees to agree to arbitrate any legal disputes relating to the employment relationship. Like non-compete and similar agreements, you may have signed an arbitration agreement when your employment began. If there is a valid arbitration agreement, you can’t sue your employer in court, except in very limited circumstances. However, even if you signed an arbitration agreement, you may want to consult with an attorney to determine whether the agreement is valid and enforceable.

Job reference

Determine whether and how you can use your former employer as a job reference. Regardless of the nature of the termination, some employers will provide a neutral reference (e.g., confirmation of dates of employment and job title). Find out who a prospective employer should contact to ask for a job reference. This may be especially important if you’re applying for a job with the federal government or a position that requires a security clearance.

How can an employment attorney help me?

If you’ve been fired or laid off, it may be helpful to consult a lawyer. An experienced employment attorney can give you advice about whether to sign a severance agreement and attempt to negotiate a better severance package. An employment attorney can also determine if you have any legal claims against your employer. Alan Lescht and Associates can help. We represent federal government workers around the world, as well as private-sector and state and local government employees in Washington, DC, Maryland, and northern Virginia.

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