Fired because of COVID? Your termination might not be legal
If you’ve been fired from your job for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic, your dismissal might be unlawful. Even if your employment was at-will, there are restrictions on dismissals.
For example, it’s not legal to terminate someone for bringing up safety concerns, taking medical leave, or obeying a federal or local lockdown/stay-at-home order.
Wrongful termination is a form of retaliation and is illegal under the law. If you believe your termination was retaliatory, you might have a case against your employer.
What is wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination is when an employer fires someone for illegal reasons. For example, it’s illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim or exercising their right to file a report with the Human Resources department.
Another form of wrongful termination is constructive discharge. According to WrongfulTermination.com, constructive discharge is when you quit because of circumstances that no reasonable person would continue to work under.
To prove constructive discharge, you have to convince 9 out of 12 jurors that no reasonable person would continue working under those conditions. For example, if you quit because your formal complaints of sexual harassment didn’t stop your co-worker’s behavior, quitting would likely be seen as constructive discharge.
How does COVID-19 affect wrongful termination?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the wrongful termination landscape to provide greater protections for workers. For example, employees are entitled to paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) to care for a family member who contracted COVID-19.
This paid sick leave also covers parents who need to care for a child at home after school closes because of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has also added to the list of protected employee actions. For example, employees can’t be fired for voicing their concerns about the virus. If an employee tells their boss they’re concerned about the lack of social distancing and protective gear, that’s not a fireable offense.
On the other hand, if an employer isn’t generating enough business to justify payroll, they can legally terminate employees at their discretion.
How COVID-19 has impacted payroll-related cuts
The coronavirus pandemic has created some interesting complications where payroll is concerned. For hourly employees, you won’t see much of an impact. Hourly employees get paid for time worked, and if their working hours are cut short because of closures, it’s perfectly legal.
Exempt employees, on the other hand, must be paid their full salary for each week they work, regardless of how many hours they work – even if they don’t meet a minimum. For instance, an exempt (salaried) employee might work 10 hours this week, but their employer is required to pay them for the full week.
Since the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)’s overtime rule changed in January 2020, more employers are moving employees from salaried to hourly. This change is legal, but employers need to be careful about how they reclassify employees. The new FLSA rule raised the minimum exempt salary from $23,600 to $35,568.
Normally, this change would make some employers reclassify higher paid employees from hourly to salaried because they wouldn’t need to pay them overtime.
However, under the new coronavirus protections, employers are reclassifying employees from salaried to hourly. With shutdowns and reduced capacity requirements, many businesses can’t afford to keep employees salaried when they’re not working much.
This brings up the possibility that employees might get fired because employers don’t want to pay them their full salary. While there’s nothing inherently illegal about firing an employee because you don’t their work, when it’s related to COVID-19, the waters get murky.
Have you been terminated for something COVID-19-related?
If you believe your termination or demotion was illegal, you need to consult with an attorney immediately. You might be entitled to compensation for being wrongfully terminated.
If you win your wrongful termination case, you can be awarded several types of damages including lost wages and benefits, emotional distress, and punitive damages. All of these damages can add up quickly, especially if your case goes to trial. Juries often award hefty punitive damages when an employer has clearly broken the law with ill intent.
While you’ll probably win your case, even if it settles out of court, there is one precaution. It’s important to have a lawyer when pursuing a wrongful termination lawsuit. Don’t try to represent yourself. Court proceedings are confusing, and you will be held to the same standards as experienced lawyers. Don’t risk losing your case by frustrating the judge – get a wrongful termination lawyer to fight for you.