Job loss is often cited as one of the top five most stressful events in a person’s life, along with death of a loved one, divorce, moving and a major illness. At times the termination does not come as a surprise and has nothing to do with your performance. Whether it is because new management has come in, the company is either reorganized or downsized, you’ve seen jobs being outsourced or business isn’t great, it does not come as a surprise to you when you learn that you are being let go. Other times, you are completely blindsided, unprepared for this major life event.
Whatever the reason or reasons for the termination, it is a challenging and confusing time. Individuals go through phases of emotions, ranging from anger to relief, anxiety, hopelessness, sadness and even euphoria. On one hand, you want to move on and find that next job, a better job that will better suit your lifestyle, or perhaps better benefits or work-life balance. On the other hand, you want to make sure that you are not leaving anything at your former employer’s table. Consider the following as you transition through the post-termination state of limbo.
This seems obvious, but once terminated ensure that you have been paid for all work performed. If you are discharged, the employer is obligated to pay full wages no later than the business day after the date of the discharge. You may also be entitled to vacation days or paid time off (PTO) days that you accrued but that you did not use. Typically, the employee handbook should indicate how PTO is treated upon termination.
Are you an “at-will” employee or do you have an employment contract?
Most employees are “at-will,” meaning they can be fired for any non-illegal reason at any time. But some employees have employment contracts that specify a term of employment or specific reasons that can lead to termination. If you’ve just been fired, go back and determine whether you have an employment contract and what the contract says. Sometimes contracts provide for severance or other benefits upon termination. It is important to know what contractual rights and responsibilities, if any, you may have upon termination.
Most employees who have been terminated are eligible for unemployment compensation, unless they engaged in willful misconduct. Employers have the right to contest your unemployment, but often don’t, depending on the circumstances of your termination. Make sure to apply as soon as possible. Here is the link to the Connecticut Department of Labor where you can apply for unemployment online: ctdol.state.ct.us/UI-OnLine/index.htm
Certain employees, from both private and public sectors, are members of a union. A collective bargaining agreement may give distinct protections from termination or other adverse employment actions. If that is your case, your rights would be spelled out in a collective bargaining agreement. If you are part of a union and have been terminated, you need to act quickly to understand your rights, given that there are usually short deadlines by which you need to act to preserve your rights.
Upon termination, employers may or may not offer their employees severance. Unless you have a contract that provides for the payment of severance upon termination, you are not typically entitled to it. But, even when employers aren’t legally obligated to pay severance, many times they are willing to offer severance in exchange for a release and waiver of claims against the company. If you are offered severance, you should not sign any documentation without the assistance of able counsel. You need to understand what rights you give up when you sign. If you are not offered severance, you should consider the possibility of negotiating severance as part of your departure.
It is very helpful to get a copy of your personnel file that may contain important information related to the reasons for your termination. This is especially the case if you suspect that you have been terminated illegally. In Connecticut, employees have the right to a copy of their personnel file. You have one year from the date of your termination to request a copy. The request should be in writing, and the employer has 10 business days after receiving the request to provide you with a copy. Getting a copy of your personnel file is the first step toward determining whether you have a case against your employer for wrongful termination.
Finally, if you believe that you have been terminated due to discrimination or retaliation, because of age, gender, sex, religion, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status, disability, Family and Medical Leave Act or other protected class or protected activity, you should not delay in seeking legal counsel. The deadline for filing claims against employers is short, and if missed, you may not be able to pursue those claims.
Maria Garcia-Quintner is an attorney with Mitchell and Sheahan. Her practice focuses on advancing the rights of individuals who have suffered retaliation, discrimination, wrongful termination and/or harassment on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, disability, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation or other protected classes. She can be reached at 203-873-0240 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Mitchell and Sheahan has offices in Stratford, Westport and White Plains.