Layoff Rights for Wisconsin Employees

The federal WARN Act and Wisconsin's mini-WARN law entitle employees to advance notice of layoffs.

Wisconsin employees who lose their jobs in a mass layoff or plant closing have some rights. Unfortunately, those rights don’t necessarily include the right to keep your job: No law prohibits employers from making necessary job cuts. However, employees may have other rights.

Union members might have rights through their collective bargaining agreement, such as the right to apply for open positions across the company, to be considered first for rehire, or to “bump” less senior employees who have not been targeted for layoff. Your union rep can tell you whether you have options like these through your bargaining agreement.

Employees also have the right to a certain amount of notice before a plant closing or large-scale layoff, under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. Almost half of the states have similar laws, and Wisconsin is among them. Wisconsin law also requires advance notice of layoffs and plant closings. Employees are entitled to damages if the employer doesn’t give sufficient notice.

This article provides basic information on the rights of Wisconsin employees under the federal WARN Act and Wisconsin’s mini-WARN law. For more information on your rights when you are laid off (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.

Employer Coverage

The coverage rules under federal and state law differ.

Employer Coverage Under WARN

The federal WARN law doesn’t apply to smaller employers. Employers are covered only if they have:

  • 100 or more full-time employees (employees who work at least 20 hours per week and have worked for the employer for six or more of the last 12 months), or
  • at least 100 employees who work a combined 4,000 hours or more per week.

Employer Coverage Under Wisconsin Law

Under Wisconsin law, employers are covered if they have at least 50 employees in the state who work an average of 20 or more hours per week and have worked for the employer for at least six out of the last 12 months.

Covered Job Actions

The federal WARN law and Wisconsin’s mini-WARN law apply only to mass layoffs or plant closings that affect a certain number or percentage of employees. The state law applies to smaller job actions.

Mass Layoffs and Plant Closings Under WARN

WARN applies only to mass layoffs and plant closings:

  • A plant closing is the shutdown of a single site of employment (such as a building, office suite, or campus of buildings), or at least one facility or operating unit within a single site of employment, which results in job loss for 50 or more full-time employees during any 30-day period.
  • A mass layoff is a reduction in force resulting in job loss at a single site of employment 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.

WARN also applies to plant closings or mass layoffs that occur in stages over 90 days.

Mass Layoffs and Business Closures Under Wisconsin Law

Wisconsin’s mini-WARN law applies to any business closing that affects at least 25 employees. A business closing is defined as the permanent or temporary shutdown of an employment site, a facility, or an operating unit at one site or within one town.

Wisconsin’s law also applies to mass layoffs, defined as a reduction in force that affects:

  • 500 or more employees, or
  • the greater of 25% of the workforce or 25 full-time employees.

Required Notice

If a layoff or plant closing is covered by WARN or by Wisconsin’s mini-WARN law, employees who will lose their jobs are entitled to notice 60 days in advance.

The notice must provide specified information about the planned layoffs, including whether they are expected to be temporary or permanent, the expected date when the layoffs will begin, and when the employee will receive a termination letter.

Exceptions Under WARN

Of course, employers won’t always be able to give 60 days’ notice. WARN doesn’t require employers to give notice if they are laying off temporary or seasonal employees, or the layoffs are the result of temporary projects that are completed, as long as the employees knew when hired that the jobs were temporary. WARN also doesn’t apply to job losses caused by employee strikes or lockouts.

Under WARN, an employer can give less than 60 days notice if one of these exceptions applies (the employer must still give as much notice as possible and explain why it couldn’t give the full 60 days that would otherwise be required):

  • Natural disasters. Less notice is allowed if the layoff or plant closing results from a natural disaster, such as an earthquake.
  • Unforeseeable business circumstances. If the business circumstances leading to the plant closing or layoff were not reasonably foreseeable when the employer should have given 60 days’ notice, the employer can give less notice.
  • Faltering company. If a company is struggling financially when it should have given 60 days’ notice, it can give a shorter period of notice. However, the company must show that it was actively seeking business or money that would have allowed it to postpone or avoid the plant closing altogether, and that it reasonably believed, in good faith, that giving 60 days’ notice would have precluded it from obtaining the necessary business or money. This exception does not apply to mass layoffs, only to plant closings.

Exceptions Under Wisconsin Law

Wisconsin’s mini-WARN law recognizes exceptions for job losses due to

  • sale of the company, if the buyer agrees to hire the affected employees with no more than a six-month break in employment
  • disaster
  • unforeseeable business circumstances, or
  • the end of seasonal or temporary work.

If Your Rights Have Been Violated

Under both WARN and Wisconsin’s mini-WARN law, employers who don’t give employees sufficient notice can be ordered to pay damages of up to 60 days of back pay and lost benefits. The amount of damages will be reduced by any notice the employer gave and any voluntary severance payments the employer provided. For example, if the employer should have given 60 days’ notice but gave only one week, the employer can be ordered to pay up to 53 days of damages.

If you believe your rights have been violated, you should consult with an experienced Wisconsin 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.

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