Covid Layoffs with Minimal Notice May be Huge Issue for Big Employers

The number of layoffs that have been attributed to Covid by companies this past year have been astronomical. Employees often have had little to no notice when being laid off making it extremely difficult to cope during these trying times. What rights, if any, do workers have when it comes to being terminated on the fly? Existing laws, such as the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act), make it illegal for companies with 100 employers or more to fire 50 or more individuals within a short span of time without giving them two months’ notice. If an employer is found to have violated the WARN Act, its’ workers are entitled to money damages. This law is now getting a lot of attention after several employees, who were laid off by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, filed a class action lawsuit shortly after the pandemic began claiming the company violated the WARN Act with a mass layoff with zero notice. 

The U.S. District Judge assigned to this matter, Roy B. Dalton, ruled recently that despite the WARN Act offering employers two significant exemptions to this federal statute in unprecedentedsituations, it doesn’t completely nullify protections for layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic. Enterprise asked the court to have the case dismissed citing both exemptions. These carve outs to the law, which allow businesses to not have to give any advanced warning in the event of a “natural disaster”and/or “unforeseeable business circumstances”, were challenged by the Judge. Specifically, Enterprise’s”natural disaster” defense was knocked by the Judge noting that the pandemic only indirectly sparked the layoffs instead of directly as required by the statute. Additionally, the court stated that the pandemic may not even fall under the “natural disaster” category citing the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidance which failed to group them together. In this case, the ‘unforeseeable business circumstance will be the more likely exception for Enterprise, however, the Judge noted that the WARN Act’s provision on notice requirements isn’t eliminated here, but rather “softened” so that businesses give as much notice as possible.

The Judge ruled in favor of the case moving forward to the fact-finding stage of discovery as it is still unclear if Enterprise complied with notice obligations. This will force both parties to exchange evidence in the next phase of litigation before allowing him to make a more informed ruling. This was not the quick resolution Enterprise and many other corporations watching this case were hoping for. Although this result isn’t binding for other similar cases to come, federal judges will absolutely look to this case as a guidepost to see how this matter unfolds and is analyzed with respect to the liability that larger companies may have as a result of mass layoff due to the pandemic.

This is great news for workers at larger firms who were let go with little to no notice during the height of the pandemic. There is now precedent into prompting a more in-depth review as part of a WARN Act lawsuit to see if companies are actually complying with the law to give adequate notice. If you were laid off from your job because of the coronavirus with no warning, your rights as an employee may have been violated. Call our employment law firm, Fitapelli & Schaffer, LLP, for a free and confidential consultation at (212) 300-0375 or visit our website for additional helpful information.