Laid Off vs. Fired: Understanding the Difference

Even if you were told you were laid off, you might have been illegally fired.

Whether you were fired or laid off is not just a matter of semantics. The distinction often matters when it comes to eligibility for unemployment benefits—and when applying for future jobs.

Here's what you need to know about the difference between a layoff and a firing.

Layoffs and Firings

A layoff usually refers to a permanent termination of employment. Employees generally lose their jobs for business reasons unrelated to their performance. For example, a company might decide to eliminate a product line, close a factory, reduce the size of a department, or trim staff to save money.

Being fired, on the other hand, usually happens as a result of an employee's poor performance, violation of company policies, or behavioral issues. When someone is fired, it suggests that their actions or work did not meet the employer's expectations or standards.

Firing is often the result of a specific incident or a pattern of underperformance, and it can have negative implications for an employee's reputation and future job prospects. Fired employees typically do not receive the same benefits as those who are laid off and may not be eligible for unemployment benefits, depending on the reasons for termination and local labor laws.

Wrongful Termination: When Is a Layoff Illegal?

Some employers say they are "laying off" employees when they are actually firing them for other reasons—sometimes illegal reasons. In this situation, a so-called layoff is actually a wrongful termination in disguise.

Most employees work at will, which means they can quit at any time, and can be fired or laid off at any time, for any reason that is not illegal. Unless an employee has a contract that requires good cause for termination or limits the employers right to fire in other ways, the employee works at will.

However, even at-will employees can't be fired for illegal reasons. For example, it is illegal to fire an employee for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation for reporting harassment, safety violations, or other workplace wrongs. An employee who is illegally fired may have a wrongful termination claim against the employer.

When Is a Layoff a Wrongful Termination?

There are a couple of ways a layoff might actually be a wrongful termination in disguise. The first happens when an employer includes a particular employee in a layoff for illegal reasons.

For example, even an employer that has perfectly legitimate economic reasons to lay off employees generally might decide to include a particular employee because she has complained of sexual harassment, because she has a disability, or because she has exercised a legal right (for example, by taking FMLA leave or filing a workers' compensation claim).

It doesn't matter that the employer has sound reasons for letting workers go or that some workers may have been laid off for legitimate reasons. If an employee can show that there were illegal reasons why he or she was selected for layoff, that employee may have a wrongful termination claim.

The other way a layoff may constitute wrongful termination is by the impact it has on workplace demographics. If a layoff has a disproportionate negative effect on a protected group (such as Black employees or Muslims), the employees may be able to prove a disparate impact discrimination claim.

In this situation, the employees aren't arguing that the employer intentionally selected individual employees for layoff because of, for example, their race. Instead, the employees claim that the employer's apparently neutral selection criteria screened out too many employees in particular groups and were, therefore, discriminatory.

Hiring an Employment Lawyer

If you believe your layoff was actually a wrongful termination, you should consider consulting with an employment lawyer. If the employer had economic reasons for letting workers go, it can be tough to prove that individual employees were illegally included in the layoff group.

It can be even tougher to prove a disparate impact case, which depends on statistical analysis. An employment lawyer can sort through the facts and let you know whether you might have claims worth pursuing.

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