Dear Readers —
A few weeks ago I wrote about a terrific and informative book called Fired, Downsized or Laid Off by labor attorney Alan Sklover.
A number of you wrote to share your experiences about losing a job and asking for advice. Although we cannot continue to provide personal advice for every situation, if you read the following recommendations you'll see there is a pattern as to the steps you should take if you think you've been treated unfairly by a former employer.
First, don't sign ANYTHING until you have given yourself a day or more to think.
Next, calmly and rationally let your employer know why you feel the terms of your layoff are unfair. If you get no satisfaction, you've got to make a decision: either to pursue your claim or to chalk it up to experience and move on. If you opt for the former, one avenue is to contact your state labor or employment department You might also consider retaining an attorney.
All of this and more is laid out in Sklover's book, which is one of the most important financial guides you can have on your bookshelf. After all, what's more critical than your livelihood? I strongly recommend you get a copy whether you have just been fired or not. You never know. Additional information on employment issues is available from Sklover's Web site.
P.S.: This is a two-part column, so come back next week for more advice!
I was fired from a company after I had been injured on the job. I had returned to work with 75% ability to stand and I had to go to the doctor once a week. I went to the Texas Rehabilitation Commission seeking re-education so I could work in a diminished capacity, but with higher skills at the same job.
When my boss fired me he gave me a letter explaining that I was fired because I went to the Texas Rehabilitation Commission to get help with my disability! Do you think I have a case?
Dear Alan —
First, it's hard to believe an employer would be stupid enough to fire you for this and put it in writing. However, since you have the letter, attorney Alan Sklover says your first step is to contact the Texas Rehabilitation Commission. Explain what happened and ask whether Texas has a law which protects you from being punished by an employer simply for exercising your rights.
If you don't get satisfaction, "Don't be afraid to call state labor department and ask to speak to a staff member," says Sklover.
Even if it's not specifically prohibited by state law, according to Sklover, "This kind of corporate behavior runs counter to the reason these commissions were established." You're simply not supposed to be retaliated against for exercising your right to equal protection.
I was with the same company for 8 years. I was moved from our Florida office to one in Colorado in January 1999 to work on a project that didn't materialize. I paid for the move. I was then asked to move back to Florida in July 2001. I was told by my boss (the same boss in Colorado and Florida) that he would pay for my return move and put me to work, that he would do it right this time.
Now the Florida office has been closed and I was just laid off.
I think my company should reimburse me for my costs. I paid 2 real estate commissions and paid for my move one way. I had to buy another vehicle and my wife had to change jobs with each relocation. I also have built a home in Florida which I would not have done if I thought I was going to be terminated.
I would appreciate any ideas you might have for me.
Dear Bob —
Since you admit you were reimbursed for your moving expenses from Colorado to Florida, the only expenses you're potentially owed are those incurred when you moved from Florida to Colorado. What was the arrangement you had with your employer?
According to Sklover, an oral promise which you rely upon is legally binding. If you were actually promised help with your moving expenses, but never received it, this would be a breach of contract. On the other hand, if you simply feel as if you're entitled to this because of all you've been through, you have no case.
Which moving expenses were included? Did you and your boss discuss closing costs and real estate commissions? Or was just the actual moving of your possessions covered? If you were gainfully and happily employed by your company today, would you still expect to be reimbursed for these expenses? Or are you just demanding them now because you feel as if you were misled and unfairly treated?
Then there's the issue of trying to prove you were promised anything! After all, it's your word against your ex-boss's. The fact is, most promises — even in the workplace — ARE verbal. And according to Sklover, most lawsuits come down to credibility. Are you more believable than your employer? Did your actions indicate you believed you had an agreement?
There's a lesson here for each of us: Say 'Thank you.' That's right!
Attorney Sklover says every time you are promised something — a raise, a promotion, some benefit — "Graciously thank your employer in an email. E-mail is the most potent weapon for employee rights ever invented." That's because the e-mail creates a record. If your employer doesn't deny or correct the email, it's assumed to be correct.
Think of it as an electronic paper trail.
I work for a government-funded not-for-profit organization in Illinois and we found out recently that we will have a big cutback in funding.
I am bothered about being laid off. Will I get to apply for unemployment benefits even though I just found out my employer doesn't pay into unemployment (nor has to pay)? Should I work for a not-for-profit organization in the future?
Al Sklover's law practice is in New York, but he knows of no exception which allows an employer — whether for-profit or non-profit — to avoid paying unemployment insurance.
However, there could be a provision in Illinois which exempts certain entities. Your best bet is to call your state labor commission and find out if this is true.
If your former company was supposed to pay into the unemployment fund and failed to do so, you are probably still entitled to benefits. The state would send you your checks and then go after your employer to recover the money.
It's worth a phone call!
I was laid off last November 2001. When I signed and returned the paperwork accepting my severance package I wrote on the front "Please pay my overtime". I have yet to see a dime. I sent them a letter requesting payment and now they tell me I'm getting a check for $500 -- not the $7,000 I'm owed!
Is it too late? Am I just out this money?
Dear Firasat —
In general, if you released your employer from all future claims, you have no right to go back later and, in effect, say, "Oops, I forgot something." However, overtime is a matter of state and federal law. It's not something an employer can just decide not to pay. And there should be a record of your actual hours worked.
Sklover thinks "you have a very good chance to collect." Even though you didn't respond in the technical language an attorney would have used, you did clearly indicate in writing that you were not releasing your employer from this obligation.
If you believe you are, in fact, due this money, first contact your employer and reiterate this. If you get nowhere, then contact your state labor commission.
By all means, DO NOT sign any letter that might be coming with the $500 check they're sending you as this might constitute a release from any further overtime claims! In fact, you should probably not even cash the check.
By the way, if you mistakenly sign a release, all is not lost. Sklover says your best defense is to tell the court, "I didn't understand what I was signing." Most judges will let you go back to employer and re-open the issue.
If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your name and phone number.
The views expressed in this article are those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Putnam Investments Inc. or any of its affiliates. You should consult your own financial adviser for advice regarding your particular financial circumstances. This article is for information only and is not an offer of the sale of any mutual fund or other investment.