Before you take your severance check and walk out the door, make sure you're getting everything you deserve and protecting your interests.
Mass layoffs are back in the news.
January was particularly brutal for journalists. Buzzfeed announced it was reducing its workforce by 15%. Verizon cut about 7% of media division staff. And Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, slashed dozens of jobs across the country.
Hearing the news that you've just been laid off can be a devastating blow. If you end up on the wrong side of a pink slip, give yourself a minute to collect your thoughts. But before you take your severance check and walk out the door, make sure you're getting everything you deserve and protecting your interests.
1. Ask about all your pay
Find out when you will receive your last paycheck, and make sure it's the correct amount.
Next, look into your unused vacation days. While there is no federal law that requires unused vacation to be paid out at termination, and state laws differ, many companies will pay you for accrued unused vacation days. Others explicitly say they won't. So dig up your employee handbook and make sure you know exactly what you're entitled to.
2. Hold off on signing for your severance
Don't sign anything right away. First you want to make sure you know exactly what you're signing. Plus, you might be able to negotiate for more.
"You are stunned," said Donna Ballman, an employee attorney in Florida. "Losing your job is as devastating as losing a family member — the trauma is real. You wouldn't sign something the minute you find out you lost a family member."
Severance agreements are designed to protect the company, noted Gregg Zeff, an employment lawyer in Philadelphia. They can include nondisclosure agreements and clauses that strip the company of any wrongdoing and prohibit a worker from suing.
"When you get a package, unless it's everything you wanted and more, you should contact a lawyer — there is no one protecting you," Zeff said.
You might be able to negotiate a better severance package, if you have some leverage.
"If your negotiation is 'please be nice to me,' sometimes that works," said Ballman. "Better yet, look for some potential claims you might have that could give you leverage to negotiate."
Ask for the reasoning of the layoffs and review who is getting eliminated: Are all the workers over age 50 getting laid off? Were you told it was a "last in, first out" situation, but you've been there for a decade, and are pregnant?
If you think you're being singled out due to race, age, sex or national origin, Ballman advised noting the ways you believe you've been treated differently. Any potential discrimination claims can bolster negotiations for a better severance package.
Always ask for a copy of anything you signed to keep for your own records.
If the company isn't willing to budge on the numbers in the severance package, there are other things you can ask for, according to Jay Zweig, a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm. He suggested asking for a letter of recommendation, outplacement services or a set period of time for how long your company email or voicemail will remain functional.
3. Make sure you're eligible for unemployment
If you were laid off without cause, you will likely qualify for unemployment insurance.
Sometimes, a company might ask an employee to resign during layoffs. Don't do that unless the severance package is worth it to you, advised Ballman.
While state laws vary, resigning can make you ineligible to collect unemployment benefits in some states.
And don't hesitate to file for unemployment insurance.
"The process takes some time, so you do not want to delay that process," said Nancy Karas, a business consultant and a coach at outplacement services firm GetFive.
"People feel bad about taking unemployment, but you shouldn't — you have earned it. It is temporary, and it is a base to help you move forward."
Keep in mind though, some states don't allow you to get unemployment insurance while you're receiving severance pay.
4. Make sure your health insurance is covered
Ask how long your health insurance plan will remain in place. You're likely already covered through the end of the month at least, but then you need to find out what your continuity options are.
"A lot of companies try to cut off the day you are fired, but unless it's the last day of the month, they shouldn't be doing that because you probably paid through the month," said Ballman.
Some companies will offer extended health insurance along with severance pay. But if you are losing your health insurance, most employers have to send you a COBRA notice. COBRA allows former employees to continue their health insurance plan for a set period of time, but they will be paying 100% of the premium. Eligible employees can get up to 18 months of coverage. You can also shop for an individual health care plan on the state or federal exchanges.
5. Take your savings with you
If you have a company sponsored 401(k), you have a few options for what to do with it after your exit.
You can roll the money into an IRA, which can offer more flexibility than a company plan.
Sometimes you can also roll over the older 401(k) into your new employer's plan and keep all your savings in one place.
There's also the option of taking a cash distribution, but be prepared to be hit with hefty penalties and tax consequences if you aren't of retirement age.
Funds in a health savings account (HSA) are yours to keep after you leave the company, and you might be able to continue adding money to it after the lay off, as long as you have an HSA-eligible health plan.
A flexible spending account is another story. You can't use money in an FSA or contribute more after you've parted ways with your employer, but you might still be able to file a claim for whatever money is left in your account. Ask your employer what your options are.