As the economic meltdown cascades through the financial, banking and related sectors, many employers are planning staff cuts. Selecting employees for lay off must be collaboration between managers and human resources. HR must be able to influence the process to reduce legal risks and assuage the anxiety of remaining employees:
Establishing Business Justification and Layoff Selection Criteria:
The business justification for the reduction in force or layoff must be established. The justification for layoff typically gives rise to the selection criteria. For example, if a large contract was lost, the production and support functions related to the lost contract will be the focus or the layoff.
Layoff decisions may be challenged under discrimination laws, so it is advisable to develop selection criteria that support the business reasons for selecting one employee over another. Unless dictated by union contract, employers have discretion in developing the selection criteria which can include factors like, seniority, relative skills, performance, and/or disciplinary record. More than one factor may be used.
Forced Ranking Systems are sometimes utilized to rank employees against one another from the top down based on performance criteria. The subjectivity in forced ranking can be challenged as discriminatory unless uniformly and rationally applied.
Evaluating Impact of Selection Criteria including Bumping, Transfer and Recall Rights:
Once employees are identified for layoff, the results of the section criteria must be assessed in terms of disparate impact and other special circumstances. A disparate impact analysis should be conducted to assess whether the selection criteria have resulted in the disproportionate layoff of members of a protected class. Likewise, special circumstances should be evaluated such as employees with recent employment complaints, union activity, FMLA leaves, etc. Consider documenting the final layoff decisions, but not the deliberations leading up to them.
Thought must be given to collateral job rights employees may have under employment policies and practices. Typical areas involve shift or department transfers, supervisor demotion in lieu of layoff, and voluntary layoffs. Likewise, the parameters of recall, if any, should be described.
Federal and state plant closing/mass layoff laws must be considered. Although Pennsylvania has no state law equivalent to WARNA, employers with multi-state operations must assess the application of such laws. Coverage under WARNA can be complex as it has look back rules which aggregate layoffs for determining triggering events. WARNA coverage will trigger the sixty-day notice period which has a tremendous impact on layoff planning raising issues of pay in lieu of notice, retention, and publicity.
Severance Benefits and Releases:
Careful consideration must be given to describing the benefit package, if any, offered to employees. If an employer is offering benefits that exceed those already provided by policy or mandated by law, it should consider obtaining a release. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) contains special rules for waivers of rights of claims of age discrimination including a 45-day consideration and seven-day revocation period for such releases. Furthermore, the ADEA contains informational requirements that mandate publication of summary of employee demographic information in connection with the release.
Effective communication is paramount in reducing employee legal claims and assuaging the anxiety of remaining employees. Everything that is said about the reasons for the layoff will be scrutinized in litigation. Consider scripting communications for group meetings and avoid individual discussions of the reason for selection. Large layoffs may generate news media interest for which a press release is a helpful way to influence the message.
Jerry Kalish at the Retirement Plan Blog made a great observation about layoffs in his post Does a reduction in force or layoff beget a partial termination of a retirement plan?. He refers to the IRS rules on partial termination of a retirement plan based on the significant reduction in plan participation resulting from the layoff. IRS Guidance entitled 401(k) Resource Guide – Plan Participants – Plan Termination includes the following summary:
Although a 401(k) plan must be established with the intention of being continued indefinitely, an employer may (fully) terminate its 401(k) plan at its discretion. In certain cases, a partial plan termination is deemed to occur. Whether a partial termination occurs depends on the individual facts and circumstances of a given case. In general, a partial termination is deemed to occur when an employer-initiated action results in a significant decrease in plan participation. As an example, a partial termination may be deemed to occur when an employer reduces its workforce (and plan participation) by 20%.