Can My Employer Just Fire Me Because of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

New York City Lawyers for Wrongful Termination Claims

Steven Fingerhut

There have been major disruptions to workplaces in New York City due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You may be understandably concerned about whether you are protected against discriminatory conduct during the pandemic. If you are concerned about whether your employer can terminate you due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you should discuss your situation with the New York City wrongful termination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Some cases may require intricate analysis, such as employment actions taken because of both the COVID-19 pandemic and protected characteristics. On the other hand, many businesses have had to effectuate layoffs and terminations because of slow business or reduced operations during the pandemic. Depending on the circumstances, these actions could be lawful.

Can My Employer Just Fire Me Because of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Employment in New York is at-will. This means that your employer can terminate you for no reason or any reason. Likewise, you can quit for any reason or no reason. However, your employer cannot fire you in violation of the law. This means that you are protected against termination for wrongful or illegal reasons, such as disability discrimination.

Since businesses have been financially affected by COVID-19, employers may ask employees to take unpaid leave or furlough them instead of providing them with the reasonable accommodations needed to work from home.

Your employer can conduct layoffs related to COVID-19, although in certain instances it must follow certain rules, like those prescribed by the WARN Act. However, it cannot discriminate against workers based on their protected characteristics, or in its choice of which employees to terminate. Federal, state, and local laws protect a wide range of characteristics. Your employer should not terminate only employees who have particular protected characteristics. For example, your employer should not terminate only Asian American employees on the false assumption that there is a link between Asian Americans and COVID-19. For another example, your employer should not terminate only employees with chronic illnesses or disabilities that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Terminations undertaken only for business purposes and necessity during COVID-19, which do not discriminate between workers based on protected characteristics, may be legitimate. It is important to discuss your specific situation with an experienced attorney who understands the nuances of federal, state, and local laws, and who can figure out whether you have legal protections under anti-discrimination laws.

Reasonable Accommodations for Employees With Disabilities

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law require employers to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness; it may be disabling in that it impedes breathing, among other things. In that case, you may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation, or a change to your work environment or work policies that would allow you to keep working. Reasonable accommodations could include working from home, paid or unpaid leave, or provision of safety equipment.

You should not be terminated for asking for a reasonable accommodation for COVID-19, whether it is a disabling condition or whether you have another disability that makes you susceptible to severe illness. Retaliation is unlawful under the federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws.

Additionally, New York Labor Law Section 740 prohibits employers from terminating an employee because she disclosed to a supervisor or public body an illegal practice that the employer created, and that presents a particular, substantial danger to public health or safety. You cannot be lawfully terminated for reporting your employer's failure to abide by safety laws and regulations regarding COVID-19.

Contact Our Experienced Employment Litigation Attorneys

If you believe that you were fired because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you should discuss your circumstances with one of the experienced trial attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We may be able to counsel you. We represent workers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties, as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Call us at (866) 229-9441 or complete our online form.

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