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Laid off on leave: Yes, it's legal and it's hitting some workers hard

Layoffs are hitting some people who are on parental or medical leave. It is legal for employers to lay off an employee who's on leave as long as there's a legitimate business reason.
Paulo Sousa
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Getty Images/EyeEm
Layoffs are hitting some people who are on parental or medical leave. It is legal for employers to lay off an employee who's on leave as long as there's a legitimate business reason.

Cat Fan was in bed last November, recovering from major abdominal surgery, when her phone started blowing up.

Facebook's parent company, Meta, had just announced a first round of layoffs: 11,000 employees, about 13% of the company, would lose their jobs.

Fan, a mother of three, had been a recruiting manager for Meta for almost five years.

But in the midst of a medical leave, she suddenly found herself without a job. Her layoff notification came while she was still on pain medications, in and out of sleep.

"By the time I woke up and checked my laptop, [I] was already fully locked out," she says.

Yes, it is legal to lay off an employee who's on leave

With the recent wave of layoffs in tech, media and elsewhere, stories of people laid off while on medical or parental leave are proliferating.

"I was washing baby bottles while humming a damn Wiggles song stuck in my head ... when I got the news," McKenzie Gregory, an internal communications specialist at Salesforce, recently posted on LinkedIn. "I thought I was protected being on maternity leave ... and obviously I was wrong."

Indeed, there is nothing illegal about laying off an employee in the middle of a leave "provided there's sufficient documentation that there's a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason that's based on the business," says Arianna Mouré, a labor and employment attorney with Scarinci Hollenbeck.

In other words, companies cannot use an employee's medical or parental leave as the reason to lay that person off.

"They have to be treated just the same, as if they were working as usual," says Mouré.

Still, some employers do wait until the end of someone's leave to implement a layoff. In some cases, they want to give that person extra time to get back on their feet. Other times, it's to avoid any chance of a costly legal fight.

Even though a company may have a legitimate business reason for laying someone off, there's still a risk that an employee could bring a discrimination claim, Mouré says.

Tech companies are giving generous severance to ease the sting

Google recently came under fire after CNBC published a story with the headline "Google nixes paying out remainder of maternity and medical leave for laid-off employees." A group of more than 100 laid-off staffers had called on Google to honor the paid leave it had already approved, CNBC reported.

The story generated comments ranging from "Google, do better!" to "What happened to the human factor?" to "Profits over people!"

In a statement, Google pointed to the generous separation package it's giving all laid-off employees, which includes Google stock and full salary during a 60+ day notice period, as well as a separate severance payment of at least 16 weeks of pay.

At Meta, which announced a second round of layoffs in March, Fan says a huge WhatsApp group has formed around the issue, with some affected employees trying to figure out if they can negotiate a different end date and others simply looking for support.

So far, Fan hasn't heard of anyone getting any extra time because they're on leave. The separation package Meta has offered is also very generous, she says, and includes six months of health care coverage.

"Which is amazing and very helpful," Fan says.

After all, employers in the U.S. are not required to provide severance, and many laid-off workers end up with nothing.

"Dumped and then ghosted"

Still, even with a financial cushion, Fan says the last few months have been stressful. After her surgery, she was bed-bound for many weeks, getting up only to shower or go to the doctor. But instead of focusing on her recovery, she was dealing with headaches like getting her cellphone number back.

Moreover, she was worried about who else on her team had lost their jobs. Her access to the internal chat system was gone.

"It just felt like you were dumped and then ghosted very quickly," Fan says.

She's knows she's fortunate she doesn't have to jump into full-time work right away. She still has health care coverage until July, and she's taken on a small amount of contract work as she rebuilds her endurance.

Given the mass layoffs across the tech sector, she's worried about finding a new job. She's been a recruiter in tech for almost a decade. But who needs a recruiter while hiring is on hold?

Advice for newly laid-off parents

Karla Leon was laid off from her job with the travel site Booking.com while on maternity leave in 2020.
/ Karla Leon
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Karla Leon
Karla Leon was laid off from her job with the travel site Booking.com while on maternity leave in 2020.

For the many new parents who find themselves newly laid off, Karla Leon has a few words of advice.

In 2020, Leon was in the middle of a four-month paid maternity leave from her job as an accounts manager with Booking.com when the pandemic shut down most of the travel industry, and along with it her job.

The joy her newborn daughter brought her was suddenly mixed with fear about not having a job to return to.

"Try to enjoy your baby the most that you can," she says.

Jobs will come and go, she says, but the baby moments are fleeting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.