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How Should Companies Terminate Remote Employees During a Pandemic?

Before the arrival of COVID-19, more than 50 percent of employees in the United States had a job that could have been done remotely, yet less than four percent of them primarily worked from home, according to Global Workplace Analytics. Faced with lockdown mandates in March 2020, all types of businesses ordered employees to work remotely.

As a consequence, managers must now navigate the process of having to fire or lay off employees who are working from home. There are additional legal considerations when termination is not handled in person. Learning best practices for terminating remote employees during a pandemic can help employers avoid legal pitfalls and manage the process more smoothly.

General Legal Considerations

Firing or laying off a worker signals the termination of the employer-employee relationship. Whether or not the employee had a written employee contract, the employer should always document the separation with a written termination letter, prepared in advance. Wording is important, as it could be used as evidence in litigation should the termination be contested.

Although employment is generally considered at-will, employers must ensure that they are not violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or any other state or federal laws against discrimination when terminating a worker. Other legal matters to consider include the following:

  • Personnel file. Review documentation of all conduct and any attempts at remediation.
  • Determine what compensation is owed to the employee and whether they will be eligible for unemployment benefits.
  • Incidents that may suggest retaliation. If the employee filed a Workers’ Compensation claim or complained about questionable company practices, they may have grounds for claiming the termination is an act of retaliation.

Employers must take time to weigh these factors before termination. When in doubt, the company should consult an employment lawyer before firing or laying off an employee.

Special Considerations for Terminating Remote Employees

Terminating a remote employee requires additional planning, as the following questions will need to be addressed:

  • How will access to remote equipment and online accounts be removed? It is critical to coordinate closely with the IT department to schedule the exact time for removing a terminated employee’s online access to email and other licensed software, and to collect hardware if needed.
  • Who will communicate the decision? The employee’s direct supervisor is usually the best spokesperson to communicate the termination in person, along with a representative from human resources (HR). However, sending a Zoom meeting invitation that includes HR may give the employee advanced warning, which may undermine secure removal of access to company online resources.
  • How will the decision be communicated to other remote colleagues? Direct managers should deliver the news to their team members. It is best to keep others on mute during a group Zoom meeting.
  • How should the hardcopy termination letter be delivered? The termination letter should be sent overnight, requiring signature on delivery, to arrive the day after the news is verbally communicated to the employee via virtual means.

Managers are less able to get a true sense of the person’s reaction to termination when it happens remotely. For this reason, organizations may want to monitor public comments made by former employees after remote termination in case there is a need to respond to negative publicity.

Will Businesses Continue to Use More Remote Workers?

Global Workplace Analytics predicts that at least 25 percent of U.S workers will still be doing their jobs remotely by the end of 2021. Reasons for this change include the following:

  • Since the pandemic, managers and executives have learned to trust that remote workers are actually doing their jobs at home.
  • Cost savings. Businesses are reducing overhead by allowing employees to work from home.
  • Climate benefits. Many people noticed a reduction in traffic and air pollution in April 2020, marking another shift in an increasing awareness that working from home supports sustainability of the planet.

With a greater percentage of employees working from home, the act of terminating employees remotely instead of in-person is likely to become more commonplace. Preparing for this change can make the transition easier.

Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green P.C. Offer Clear Guidance on Complex Legal Issues

Terminating employees who work remotely adds another layer of complexity to managing a workforce. Although planning ahead can help managers avoid most legal risks, questions may still arise. If you are facing a complex legal matter, the Philadelphia employment lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green P.C. are available to review your situation and provide sound guidance to help you make better business decisions. Do not hesitate to contact us online or call 215-574-0600 to arrange an initial consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.