By Christopher Dolan and Emile Davis:
The harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government shutdowns, is that businesses are not bringing in income that was once regular and expected. As a result, many employers will be forced to lay off or terminate hard working employees.
Businesses do have the right to terminate or lay off employees when the needs of the business call for a reduction in force and, generally, a non-union employer may make the decision about which employees to let go on whatever basis they chose. However, an employer may not make such decisions based upon a discriminatory or retaliatory motive.
For example, an employer may not use race or national origin as a basis for the decision of which employees to terminate. As is discussed elsewhere in this series of articles, there is an increase in discrimination and hate-crimes toward Asians since the onset of COVID-19. An employer may not use the national origin or race as a basis to deny Asians the right to return to work.
Similarly, most of the protected leave laws contain anti-retaliation provisions. That means that when an employer is making the decision of which workers to let go, they are forbidden from using the fact that an employee took accrued sick-time or other eligible leave as a basis for that decision. A worker who took CFRA leave to care for a family member who contracted COVID-19, may not be treated differently from one who did not take that leave. Having taken qualified leave cannot be held against an employee.
Employers are generally aware of these laws and will not often state specifically that the employee is being terminated for having taken leave. Often though, hints as to the underlying motive will slip. Employers may make statements indicating “they need someone who is reliable” or who “will put the business first.” These may be clues that the underlying reason may be that the worker took protected leave.