Like a lot of people in media, I’ve been laid off. I was 23, in my first job out of college, when the newspaper where I worked abruptly folded. There was an emotional staff-wide meeting in the newsroom and then everyone got an email outlining our “separation agreement”: one month’s pay and three months of health-insurance coverage.
Looking back, I realize that my severance package was generous. In corporate layoffs, it’s customary for employers to offer two weeks’ worth of payment for every year the employee has worked at the company, but federal law doesn’t require it. In fact, with the exception of some state laws, most laid-off workers have very few legal rights at all.
Last week, over 1,000 writers, editors, and other media workers lost their jobs at Buzzfeed, HuffPost, and numerous other publications, with more cuts likely to come. This isn’t the only industry that’s hurting: Tesla, Wells Fargo, and other large companies have “restructured” their head counts in the last few months, too.
A “no-fault termination” has powerlessness baked right into its definition: You’re being let go because of business or economic conditions beyond your control. But there are some things you can do to make sure that you walk away with the best severance package possible.
1. If you have time to prepare, take stock of your finances and your company’s policies.
Most people don’t see a layoff coming, but if you do, get your affairs in order. Tiffany Yannetta, who was laid off from Racked about a year ago, sensed that changes were afoot a few weeks in advance. Then she noticed that the company’s entire HR staff had the same day blocked off on their calendar, as did the management team. “That was pretty telling, and while it was scary to know exactly when it was happening, I’m glad I could prepare emotionally and logistically,” she says.
Yannetta made a checklist. She went to her all her doctors’ appointments (in case she lost her health insurance) and did a deep dive on her debit card statements to evaluate her spending. “Obviously, I didn’t have enough time to save anything significant, but at least I had a plan for where I could cut back on expenses,” she says. She also researched industry standards for severance so that when the day arrived she knew exactly what she was going to ask for.
Yannetta can’t share specific details on her exit package because she signed an NDA. But she did negotiate, and she was satisfied with the money she received. “Knowing what I wanted made me feel like I had some agency in the process,” she says. “It still sucked, but I did advocate for myself, and I walked away with more because of it.”
2. Don’t sign anything right away.
If, like most people, you’re blindsided by a layoff, don’t sign any paperwork until you’ve had a chance to look it over thoroughly — and that can take a few days. “Only a very unsophisticated employer would hand you something and say, ‘Sign this now,’” says Ed Cerasia, a New York–based employment lawyer who specializes in representing workers who have been let go. “If they did, then you’d have a legal argument that the agreement was coerced. Most HR professionals understand that people being laid off are under duress, and so they don’t ask you to sign anything at that point.” Instead, wait until you’re out of the office and your palms have dried. This will also give you time to get legal advice, if you want.
(Note: Federal laws against age discrimination state that people over the age of 40 have 21 days to review any release documents. If there are two or more employees over 40 in the laid-off group, then you automatically get 45 days. That gives you enough time to seek legal counsel and file a claim for age discrimination, if you believe there’s cause for it.)
3. Ask for a letter stating that you were laid off without cause, and then file for unemployment.
Your company should be able to provide this letter right away, even before you’ve finalized your exit package. It may come in handy when you’re filing for unemployment benefits, which you should do immediately. You may not be eligible for those benefits while you’re collecting severance (if you get any), but the filing process often takes about a month, so it’s best to get a jump on it before your income dries up completely. You may also want this letter when you’re applying for new jobs, to prove that you weren’t let go for performance-based reasons.
4. Understand what you’re being asked to sign, and fight back if you want to.
Your exit package isn’t just about severance pay. The paperwork may also contain clauses that waive your legal rights to work for a competitor or talk about the company and the terms of your departure. You want to make sure you understand what these documents say, not only so you can negotiate for changes you want to make, but also so that you don’t violate the terms by accident (which could also void your severance pay).
Not everyone needs a lawyer, or can afford one — an hour-long review of your documents could cost you around $500, which may be a healthy chunk of your precious severance. Still, it’s worth getting a second pair of eyes. One woman who spoke to me anonymously (she signed an NDA as part of her exit package) was laid off from a start-up and sent her severance paperwork to her best friend, who worked in HR at a different company. “I didn’t trust my former employer, and I wanted to make sure they weren’t trying to screw me over,” she says. As it turned out, there was a noncompete clause that forbade her from working for any competitors for two years — making it all but impossible for her to find a new job in her field. Her friend helped her write an email requesting that the clause be struck, and her former company acquiesced.
Other provisions to look out for include non-disparagement clauses, which block you from saying negative things about the company. Cerasia often requests that these non-disparagement agreements go both ways, so that representatives of the company can’t say bad things about you either (it seems only fair, right?). “Employers usually won’t volunteer to tell supervisors that they can’t disparage you, but it’s something I often negotiate for,” he says. “It may even be in their best interest, if they want to avoid defamation claims.”
If you do believe that you have cause to file a claim for discrimination or wrongful termination, find an employment lawyer in your area. You’ll have to pay around $500 to $2,000 up-front for the lawyer to determine if you have cause for a claim, and after that, they’ll usually charge a contingency fee — that is, a percentage of any additional money they help you get.
5. Consider organizing with other laid-off co-workers.
If you don’t already have a union, banding together with your former co-workers can be useful if you’re filing a claim. “For instance, if you are laid off and believe it was the result of age discrimination, then it may make sense for you to speak with your laid-off peers who are in a similar age group,” says Cerasia. “You could also retain the same lawyer. There is some advantage in negotiating based on a strength in numbers, as it may support the claim that the company targeted older workers as part of the reduction in force.”
It can also help to make noise. Over the weekend, over 600 current and former BuzzFeed workers joined forces to demand that the company pay out earned and unused vacation days to its U.S. workers, who were laid off last week. On Monday, the company agreed to do so.