Just In Case

Here's What To Do Immediately If You Get Laid Off

Alexa Tapia of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) spells out what your next moves should be.

Getting laid off is overwhelming, but there are resources available to help.
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Amid such unsteady economic times, it's entirely possible you'll find yourself facing a layoff. It's an unsettling situation no one ever wants to be in, especially when you have a family to feed and bills to pay. So, if you do lose your job, how can you keep your family protected — and your mental health in check — as you dust off your resume and prepare to find another job?

Start simple, says Alexa Tapia, the unemployment insurance campaign coordinator at National Employment Law Project (NELP). "Take a slow, deep breath. Being laid off can feel overwhelming and scary. This can be even harder for women — especially women of color — who often bear the brunt of caretaking while simultaneously facing a discriminatory labor market."

Tapia, who says she's been in this boat as a single parent, offers several steps you can take to make this transitional period as smooth and painless as possible.

Severance 101

"First, ask your employer to provide the terms of your layoff in writing," says Tapia. "If you have one, check your employment agreement or union contract to see what you're entitled to (i.e., severance and benefits), for how long, and any additional information." Companies are not legally required to provide any severance unless it explicitly says so in your employment agreement and/or union contract. You'll want to find that out as soon as possible.

Usually, if your employer is providing severance, they'll have you sign a severance agreement. "You have the right to have an attorney review the agreement before signing," says Tapia. "Many times, these agreements also include a waiver of rights, which means you are giving up your legal right to bring any potential claims against the employer going forward. So, if you believe you have any potential claims against your employer (such as for race or gender discrimination, sexual harassment, or unpaid wages), you should make sure to carefully review any agreement and contact an attorney before signing."

Across the board, "your employer cannot fire you for a discriminatory reason, including due to your race, gender, religion, national origin, pregnancy, disability, etc.," she adds. If you feel your employer has violated the law and/or discriminated against you, Tapia recommends connecting with a local employment attorney and/or filing a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but don't wait long to do so. Also, "some states have broader employment protections, such as stronger anti-discrimination or harassment laws. So, you may also want to reach out to your state's anti-discrimination agency to learn more about your rights."

File for Unemployment ASAP

"Next, apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits immediately after your last day of work," she adds. "Even if you aren't sure if you are eligible, it doesn't hurt to apply." Either way, she suggests making a budget and a plan, and marking down when any UI benefits expire.

"You can also contact your local or state public benefits office to see what other resources you may be eligible for during this time, such as food, healthcare, childcare, utilities, internet, housing, and more," says Tapia. "I highly recommend consulting with a caseworker because there may be underpromoted programs and resources you and/or your children could be eligible to receive. When you're ready, you can visit your local workforce office for assistance finding and applying for jobs, including help with resumes and interviews."

Also, check in with your child's school; they might have resources to help you through the transition. "If your children are enrolled in public school, you may be eligible for free or reduced lunch, in addition to other programs," she says. "Similarly, private schools and childcare programs may have resources or provide flexibility during this time. Additionally, you may be eligible for state childcare assistance programs."

"It's important for undocumented and mixed-status families to also check what they could be eligible for. Depending on your state and circumstances, there are resources you may be eligible to receive or, at the very least, various community resources, such as mutual aid."

State- & Employer-Backed Benefits

The reality for most U.S. workers is bleak, which means your company probably can fire you abruptly "without notice, a chance to address employment problems, or even a stated reason," says Tapia. She adds that at-will employment "wreaks havoc on the lives of U.S. workers and their families when the paycheck they depend on is there one day and is gone the next."

Still, she notes there are likely some protections you can lean on, especially if you're a full-time and/or salaried employee or your spouse is. "Employers are generally required to pay you for any unused vacation time that has accrued prior to your termination and provide you with a notice outlining your health benefit termination date and your right to COBRA or other healthcare coverage. If your spouse's employer offers benefits at their job that your family wasn't previously utilizing (i.e., healthcare and life insurance), layoffs typically qualify as a change in circumstances, and your family can join your spouse's plan."

Many large employers are required by law to provide written notice at least 60 days before the date of a mass layoff, she says. "If they do not provide that notice, employees may be able to seek damages for back pay and benefits." Some states, like New York, require 90 days' notice, so check in on that as well.

"Some states also have paid family and medical leave programs, which you may be able to access if you are unable to work due to your own illness, or if you need to care for an ill family member or new child while you are unemployed," says Tapia.

No matter what the coming days and weeks hold, you're not alone — and you will get through it. Tapia's final pro tip: "Don't be afraid to ask for help. It really does take a village, and that's OK."