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When You're Fired: Your Lawful and Contractual Rights

Jan 27, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

If you’ve been fired, you might feel at a complete loss. However, depending on the way you were let go, you may be entitled to unemployment benefits and other help, such as severance benefits and health insurance, for a certain amount of time. And if you think you may have been fired unfairly, you also have certain rights under the law.

The rights you have depend on whether you were laid off or fired. Here’s an overview of what you can expect in each situation.


Layoffs involve the temporary or permanent dismissal of employees. Usually it refers to groups of employees, rather than a single individual—and the reason has to do with economic or business conditions, not the employee’s misconduct or ineptitude.

Man Carrying Box




 Employees are typically laid off because their positions have been made redundant; the company is shutting down or needs to cut costs; or there has been a serious slowdown in business.

Rights for individuals who have been laid off depend on the states where they live. However, in most cases, you can collect unemployment benefits if you’ve been laid off. If your company laid you off because it’s outsourcing production overseas, you may also be eligible for retraining benefits.

If you’ve been laid off, you are probably eligible for a severance package—although this depends on your contract with your employer. The severance package might include continued monthly payments for a set amount of time, health insurance, retirement benefits, assistance in finding new work, and payment for unused vacation or sick days. Sometimes severance packages come with strings, however—they might state that you’re ineligible to collect unemployment benefits or can’t go to work for a competitor.


If your boss fires you, you have fewer rights than you have if you’ve been laid off. Most US companies operate under “at-will” employment contracts that technically make it unnecessary for them to justify firing you. If you were fired for misconduct, you will not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Under US law, companies are not required to offer you a severance package—or fringe benefits like health insurance coverage. If your company doesn’t explicitly promise a severance package in its employee handbook, in your employment contract or in other materials, you may not be offered one—especially if you were fired for misconduct.

However, you do have the right to sue your employer if you feel you were fired wrongfully. According to FindLaw’s Employee Rights Center, your employer has terminated you wrongfully if:

  • They’ve violated state or federal anti-discrimination laws in firing you.
  • Your firing goes against any existing oral or written employment agreements.
  • Your firing violates labor laws, including collective bargaining laws.
  • They’ve fired you as a form of sexual harassment.
  • They’ve fired you to retaliate against you for filing a claim or complaint against them.

If you think you may have been wrongfully terminated, it may be a good idea to get in touch with a lawyer. Don’t do anything against your employer that could be perceived in a negative light in court—such as slandering them in public in a blog or opinion letter to newspapers, or becoming loud, threatening or abusive to your former boss or other employees. If you do, you could compromise your position in court.

But do ask questions. Find out who decided to hire you and why; read over your employment contract and ask for a copy of your employee file. If you were promised anything during your tenure or your firing, make sure to gather as much evidence of it as you can.

In addition, don’t sign for or accept a severance package until your attorney has looked it over; many companies these days require employees to waive the right to sue the company if they accept the severance package.

Being fired can be a frightening experience. But it can also open up new opportunities for you. If you’ve been fired or laid off, check your employee handbook to see what you’re entitled to. The money from a severance package or unemployment benefits could help you get started on a new life.


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