Businesses face increasing uncertainty over the availability of financing because of the economic downturn and tightening of credit markets. Financially troubled businesses may need to curtail operations through a plant closing or mass layoff if additional financing is not received. Employers need to manage compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) as their negotiations with financial markets unfold.
WARN provides for an exception to the sixty-day notice requirement when a “faltering company” is confronted with a possible plant closing; however, the exception is a narrow one that requires careful employer analysis. An employer claiming the exception must prove: (1) it is actively seeking capital at the time the 60-day notice would have been required; (2) it had a realistic opportunity to obtain the financing sought; (3) the financing would have been sufficient, if obtained, to enable the employer to avoid or postpone the shutdown; and (4) the employer reasonably and in food faith believed that sending the 60-day notice would have precluded it form obtaining the financing.
A recent court decision in In Re: APA Transport Corp. Consolidated Litigation discussed several critical elements of the faltering company exception including the following:
Consolidation of related companies into a “Single Employer”
Related companies may be treated as a “single employer” for determining whether the employer meets the 100-employee coverage threshold for WARN and to assess whether the company is faltering. The faltering company exception is not available if a related has adequate capital to continue operations and it is treated as a single employer. Five factors are used to determine if related companies are liable under WARN on “single employer” grounds:
- Common ownership
- Common directors and/or officers
- De facto exercise of control, i.e., one company was the decision maker for the employment practice that gave rise to the litigation
- Unity of personnel policies emanating from a single source
- Dependency of operations, i.e., interchange of employees or equipment or commingling of finances.
Timing and Proof of “Actively Seeking Additional Financing”
According to the court, WARN requires that steps to “actively seek financing” be taken “at the time that the 60-day notice would have been required.” Therefore, the actions of the company occurring during the period of time, which is sixty days before the plant closing, must demonstrate active pursuit of financing. The court rejected APA’s argument that a company may qualify for the faltering company defense irrespective of whether it was actively seeking capital at the time the notice was required, so long as it did no foresee the shutdown that occurred sixty days later. Employers must demonstrate the timing and steps it took to secure financing. The court’s view of the exception places a degree of omniscience on employers to predict exactly when the company will shut down.
Incidentally, the faltering company exception does not apply to mass layoffs under WARN.