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What to Do After Losing a Union Job

Labor unions are organizations that bargain with employers on behalf of employees to secure rights to fruitful employment. In addition to fighting for major monetary compensation gains for workers, such as minimum wage increases and paid holidays, unions help protect non-monetary compensation, such as insurance plans, retirement funds and supplemental benefits for unemployment.

Even with strong unions, however, such perks aren't guaranteed. Employers and unions can go back and forth over how employees should be treated, and individual workers might find themselves caught in the middle of such struggles. For those who get fired, laid off or otherwise terminated, it's important to assess each case individually to leverage the most effective legal remedies.

Layoffs and Federal Law

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) dictates that most employers with more than 99 employees need to give no less than 60 calendar days of advance notice before conducting mass layoffs or facility closings. Exceptions to this rule include when:

  • Workers were knowingly employed on a temporary basis
  • Workers receive transfer orders that don't constitute discharges or demotions
  • Firings don't reach "mass layoff" status — labor reductions that impact at least 33 percent of active workers or 50 percent of all workers, except for part-timers

The Role of Union Layoff Rules

WARN is designed to ensure that workers have time to transition to new jobs or obtain the training they need to make such career changes successfully. Different workers' rights organizations have distinct union layoff rules that might still protect their members even if the WARN regulations don't kick in.

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), which are contracts between individual employers and unions, can vary widely by the industry and union. Common CBA layoff clauses may include:

  • Recall clauses where employers have to rehire laid-off workers once they get past the rough patches that forced the initial layoffs
  • "Bump" clauses where people who might get laid off get to take other less-senior positions instead
  • "Super seniority" clauses that ensure union officials get laid off last and recalled first so that someone's always around to protect worker rights and uphold a CBA
  • "Seniority plus" clauses that force employers to consider other qualifying factors, such as job training or certifications, in addition to worker seniority

Some CBAs completely prohibit layoffs. Many also forbid practices like laying off union employees and giving their jobs to non-union laborers or subcontractors. In some cases, a CBA might also give workers who face layoffs alternative options, such as:

  • Switching to part-time status
  • Receiving new job training
  • Reducing their hours

First Steps after Getting Laid Off

Many people who get laid off have to sit down and speak with representatives from their HR departments. While this is normal, employees generally shouldn't sign any termination letters or formal acknowledgments of their firing before talking to legal advisors or union leaders. While these agreements may include totally innocent terms, such as non-compete clauses, they could also prohibit ex-employees from suing or exercising other vital legal rights. This may also be a wise time to seek aid from an employment lawyer.

Pursuing unemployment benefits is another critical step. In most states, people are allowed to collect unemployment if they were laid off through no fault of their own. In other words, it's important not to quit or get fired before the layoff actually goes into effect. In some cases, however, such as when someone gets temporarily laid off and given a definite, imminent date for when they'll be able to return to work, they may not be eligible.

Vital Union Resources to Tap

After getting laid off from a union job, it's critical to learn what the CBA allows and provides. Many CBAs are posted online, but it's important to use the most updated version. In many cases, workers may need to discuss details with union leaders.

Workers should provide their union representatives with the following information:

  • Any formal layoff or termination notices they received
  • Any concerns about the way they were fired
  • Communications such as emails they received from HR or other company leaders

The Appeal Process

Union members who get laid off can appeal to local government agencies. To file successful appeals, however, these plaintiffs will need to provide evidence and facts proving that union, state or federal layoff rules were violated. For instance, layoffs may be deemed illegal if employees can show that the actions were "arbitrary" or "capricious," such as when capable workers get replaced by employees who take on their jobs at higher rates.

Exploring Litigation Options

Appealing a layoff is just one kind of formal resolution. Under the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), CBA-protected employees can file claims against employers that they believe terminated them without "just cause." Alternatively, LMRA lawsuits can target unions that:

  • Failed to represent their members in good faith
  • Acted in an arbitrary or irrational manner
  • Discriminated against members

Unemployment can be extremely stressful for workers and their loved ones. While union members who get terminated have a range of remedies and legal rights for fighting back, they may need to be proactive about exploring their options.

Get Help from an Experienced Employment Law Attorney

Have you been discriminated against by a potential or current employer -- as a job applicant or current employee? To best protect your legal rights you should discuss your situation with an employment lawyer. Meet with a local unions attorney sooner rather than later to protect your rights.

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