If a Rhode Island employer conducts a large layoff or closes a plant, employees have certain rights. Union members might have rights through their collective bargaining agreement, such as the ability to apply for open positions, to be retrained for new jobs, or to “bump” less senior employees who have not been targeted for layoff.
In addition to any contract rights union employees may have, the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act gives employees the right to some notice before a plant closing or large-scale layoff. Employers are not prohibited from conducting a layoff, shutting down, or relocating in the first place. However, employers that take these drastic actions must give advance notice to the employees who will lose their jobs. Employers that don’t meet this requirement can be ordered to pay limited damages.
Some states have their own notice laws. A few even require employers to continue employee health insurance or pay severance for a short period after the layoff. However, Rhode Island doesn’t offer these protections. In Rhode Island, employees are protected only by the WARN Act.
This article explains the rights of Rhode Island employees under the federal WARN Act. For more information on your rights when you lose your job, including when you should receive your final paycheck and how to continue your health benefits, see the articles at our Losing or Leaving Your Job page.
Employers Covered by WARN
WARN applies only to larger employers. Employers are covered if they have at least 100 full-time employees or at least 100 employees who work a combined 4,000 hours or more per week. A full-time employee is one who works at least 20 hours a week and has been employed for at least six of the 12 months before notice is required.
Job Actions Covered by WARN
Employers don’t have to provide notice every time they lay off an employee. Notice is required only if a certain number or percentage of employees will lose their jobs in a mass layoff or plant closing.
A mass layoff is a reduction in force resulting in job loss at a single employment site for
- 500 or more full-time employees, or
- 50 to 499 full-time employees, if the number of employees laid off makes up at least 33% of the employer’s active workforce.
A plant closing occurs when an employer shuts down a single site of employment, or at least one operating unit or facility within a site, resulting in 50 or more full-time employees losing their jobs during any 30-day period.
A site of employment is one geographical location of an employer’s operations, such as a building, an office suite, or a campus. Separate work spaces might be considered a single employment site if they are used for the same purpose, share the same staff and equipment, and are reasonably near to each other.
WARN also applies to plant closings or mass layoffs that occur in stages over 90 days. This rule prevents employers from skirting WARN’s notice requirements by conducting a series of smaller layoffs over time.
Notice Required by WARN
If an employer is planning a plant closing or mass layoff, it must notify workers 60 days in advance. The notice must provide information about the planned layoffs, including whether they are expected to be temporary or permanent, whether the employee will have bumping rights, the expected date when layoffs will begin, and the date when the employee will receive a termination letter.
There are a handful of exceptions to the WARN Act. If one of them applies, an employer either does not have to give notice at all or can give less than 60 days’ notice.
No Notice Required
An employer isn’t legally required to give advance notice of a mass layoff or plant closing that is the result of an employee strike or lockout. An employer may also skip giving notice if it lays off employees who were hired only for a temporary project that has been completed, or as a result of closing a temporary work facility. (This exception applies only if the employees knew, when they were hired, that their jobs were temporary.)
Less Than 60-Days’ Notice
Sometimes, employers may comply with WARN by giving less than 60 days’ notice. An employer who relies on one of these exceptions must give as much notice as possible, however. The employer must also explain why it couldn’t give the full 60 days that would otherwise be required.
- Natural disasters. An employer may give less notice if the layoff or plant closing results from a natural disaster.
- Unforeseeable business circumstances. A shorter notice period is allowed if the reasons for the plant closing or layoff were not reasonably foreseeable when the employer should have given 60 days’ notice.
- Faltering company. A company may give less notice if it was actively seeking business or money that would have allowed it to postpone or avoid the plant closing altogether, and it reasonably believed, in good faith, that giving 60 days’ notice would have precluded it from obtaining the necessary business or money. This exception applies only to plant closings, not mass layoffs.
Enforcing Your WARN Rights
Unlike other employment laws, WARN doesn’t have an enforcement agency. Although the Labor Department is responsible for interpreting and explaining WARN through regulations, it has no authority to investigate employee complaints or file lawsuits representing employees. Employees must file a lawsuit in federal court to assert their WARN rights.
An employer that violates WARN can be ordered to pay damages to affected workers for all compensation and benefits lost due to the WARN violation, up to the full 60 days WARN requires. This amount is reduced by any wages earned or severance payments the employer made voluntarily during that time. For example, if an employer should have given 60 days’ notice, but gave notice only 13 days in advance of a layoff, employees would be entitled to 47 days of pay and benefits, unless the employer paid them severance for that extra time.
If your WARN rights have been violated, you should consult with an experienced Rhode Island employment lawyer. WARN includes the right to attorney fees if you win, so it provides an incentive for lawyers to take strong cases. However, the damages available to any one employee are relatively low. Therefore, a lawyer may advise either trying to negotiate a settlement or going forward on behalf of all affected employees, as part of a class action lawsuit.