With the economy spiraling downwards, many companies have chosen to layoff staff in an effort to reduce costs or to streamline operations. Layoffs raise a number of legal issues that make it imprudent to simply let an employee go without forethought.
1. If you plan on offering an employee severance, you must consider that if the offer differs between similarly situated employees (either offered in the past or at the same time), you may run afoul of the federal employment discrimination laws. You must be mindful of laying off persons in protected classes, such as race, religion, disability, national origin, or sex. If you offer a lesser severance to an employee in a protected class, you may be facing an EEOC discrimination charge.
2. Severance agreements must comply with certain laws and contain certain disclosures in order to be legally enforceable. This is particularly true when you are offering severance to an employee over the age of 40. The Older Workers' Benefit Protection Act which is contained within the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, contains certain requirements that mandate an employee be able to make a "knowing and voluntary waiver" if the severance is in exchange for giving up any claims against the company that the employee might have.
3. If you are closing an entire facility or laying off a group of employees, you may be required to give 60 days notice prior to the layoffs under WARN Act.
4. If you have laid off employees based on "least best" performers, you should have solid documentation to support the reasons why the employee was a low performer. If you have not maintained documentation on performance, you will have difficulty in challenging an unemployment claim or in justifying why you laid a certain employee off over another (which again, may get into a discrimination claim).