Your Rights When You Leave a Job

What you need to know about severance packages, health insurance (COBRA), unemployment insurance, and your final paycheck.

By , J.D.

Whether you leave your job voluntarily or through a termination or lay off, there are a number of loose ends you will want to tie up before you walk out the door.

Read on to learn about severance pay, your final paycheck, COBRA (the continuation of health benefits), and unemployment insurance.

What Is Severance Pay?

Severance pay usually consists of one or two months' salary given to employees who are forced to leave their jobs through no fault of their own.

Most employers are not required to provide severance pay to employees who are terminated or laid off. (A few states require employers who close a plant or lay off a large number of workers to provide salary or benefits continuation for a limited time, but most do not.)

Nevertheless, many employers offer some amount of severance pay to employees who are laid off or terminated. Some employers may be more generous to long-term employees by basing severance pay on the length of the employee's service to the company; a typical formula is a week's pay for every year of employment.

When Is Severance Pay Required?

While no law requires severance pay, an employer may be legally obligated to give you severance pay if it promised to do so -- for example, through:

  • a written contract stating that the employer will pay you severance
  • a promise of severance pay in an employee handbook or manual
  • a long history of the company's paying severance to other employees in your position, or
  • an oral promise to pay you severance (although you may run into difficulties proving the promise was made).

Can You Negotiate a Severance Package?

A severance package can include more than just money. If you are in a position to negotiate a package (perhaps your termination is questionable and your employer wants to keep you from going to court), consider asking for these other benefits:

  • Insurance benefits. Health insurance continuation laws allow you to keep the same health care you had with your employer but may require you to pay the full cost of the premiums for continued coverage. However, nothing in these laws prevents your employer from picking up the tab if it agrees to do so as part of a severance package.
  • Uncontested unemployment compensation. Sometimes, employers will try to contest the unemployment claim of a terminated worker. Ask your employer to agree not to do so. It will make getting unemployment benefits a lot easier.
  • Outplacement services. Outplacement firms help employees find new jobs. They may offer counseling, job skills training, tips on résumé and cover letter writing, and leads on potential jobs. In addition, they may give you a place where you can use a computer, receive faxes, and have a receptionist take messages for you.
  • References. If you are leaving your job under less-than-pleasant circumstances, you might work with your employer to come up with a mutually agreeable letter of reference.

When Should You Receive Your Final Paycheck?

Many states have laws that specify when departing employees must be given their final paycheck. Often, the time limit depends on whether you are leaving because you quit or because you were fired or laid off.

For example, in some states, employees must be given their final paycheck immediately or within a certain number of hours if they are terminated or laid off, but not until the next scheduled payday if they quit.

Some of these state laws also specify whether your accrued, but unused, vacation pay must be included in your final paycheck.

For more information, see Chart: Final Paychecks for Departing Employees, and contact your state's labor department.

COBRA: Health Insurance After Leaving a Job

A 1986 federal law -- the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) -- and similar state laws provide for health insurance continuation when an employee quits, is laid off, or is fired for any reason other than gross misconduct.

Under COBRA, employers with 20 or more employees must offer them the option of continuing to be covered by the company's group health insurance plan for a specific period -- often 18 months -- after employment ends. Continued coverage is also available for the worker's spouse and dependent children. However, the worker must pay the full premium cost for continued coverage.

Your state might have its own health care continuation law that provides better or broader coverage than the federal COBRA. For example, it may cover smaller employers or provide more benefits than COBRA. Your employer must follow whichever law is most beneficial to you. To find out more about your state's law, contact your state insurance office or labor department.

Unemployment Benefits: Are You Eligible?

Unemployment insurance benefits may provide some financial help if you lose your job, temporarily or permanently. Benefits will be less than your former pay and generally last for only about 26 weeks. (Depending on your circumstances and state, you may be able to extend your benefits for a total of up to 99 weeks.)

However, not all out-of-work individuals are entitled to unemployment benefits: You will be eligible only if you lose your job through no fault of your own. If you've quit your job, you're usually not eligible for unemployment, although there are exceptions.

To find out more, see Nolo's articles on Collecting Unemployment Benefits.

When to Contact an Employment Attorney

There are a number of reasons you might need to hire an attorney after leaving a job, including:

  • if you were wrongfully terminated
  • if your employer is disputing your eligibility for unemployment benefits, or
  • if you were forced to resign (called constructive discharge or constructive dismissal).

An experienced attorney can help you negotiate a settlement with your former employer or file a lawsuit on your behalf. Find an employment lawyer using our Lawyer Directory.

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