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Employees who are laid off while already on leave face extra challenges

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Mass layoffs have hit several sectors hard - among them, tech and media. And for some workers, the cuts have some at a really unfortunate time - while they've been on leave. Losing a job is hard enough. It can be even more complicated when you're not in the headspace to find something new. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Cat Fan was in bed last November recovering from major abdominal surgery when her phone started blowing up.

CAT FAN: A lot of people were messaging me and texting me on LinkedIn or by cellphone.

HSU: Facebook's parent company, Meta, had just announced a first round of layoffs - 11,000 employees. At the time, Fan, who's a mother of three, was a recruiter for Meta. She'd been there almost five years and was out on paid medical leave. That day, she learned she, too, was losing her job.

FAN: So I was trying to, like, navigate through my cellphone.

HSU: But she was still on pain meds, in and out of sleep.

FAN: And so by the time I, like, woke up and checked my laptop, it was already, like, fully locked out. And I was like, oh, darn.

HSU: Now, there's nothing illegal about laying off employees in the middle of a leave.

ARIANNA MOURE: Provided there's sufficient documentation that there's a legitimate non-retaliatory reason that's based on the business.

HSU: That's Arianna Moure, an employment attorney with the law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. In other words, employers cannot use medical leave or parental leave as the reason to lay someone off.

MOURE: They have to be treated just the same, as if they were working as usual.

HSU: She says some companies do wait until the end of someone's leave to implement a layoff, sometimes because they want to give that person time to get back on their feet, and sometimes they want to avoid any chance of a headache down the road, because, Moure says...

MOURE: While they may have a legitimate business reason, there's still a risk.

HSU: A risk that an employee might challenge the decision, leading to a costly fight. Last month, Meta announced a second round of layoffs - another 10,000 employees. And Cat Fan says now there's a huge WhatsApp group for those affected who are on leave.

FAN: All folks that were on, like, paternity or maternity leave, they're all, like, asking questions, trying to navigate it.

HSU: Trying to find out if they can negotiate a different end date or simply trying to find support. So far, Fan says, she hasn't heard of anyone getting any extra time because they're on leave. Like other tech companies, Meta is giving all employees a generous severance package, including health care coverage for six months.

FAN: Which is amazing and very helpful.

HSU: After all, employers in the U.S. are not required to provide severance. Many workers end up with nothing. Still, even with a financial cushion, Fan says the last few months have been stressful. First off, she was still bedbound for many weeks, only getting up to shower or go to the doctor. And instead of focusing on her recovery, she was dealing with all the things you're faced with when you're suddenly cut off from your job.

FAN: I spent a lot of time trying to, like, get my cellphone number back.

HSU: And on top of that, she was worried about who else at work had been laid off. Her access to the internal chat system was gone. It was a roller coaster of emotions, she says.

FAN: It just felt like you were dumped and then ghosted very quickly.

HSU: Now it's been several months since her surgery.

FAN: I am recovered - not a hundred percent.

HSU: She's doing physical therapy, trying to build up endurance and taking on a small amount of contract work for now. She knows she's fortunate she doesn't have to jump into full-time work right away. She still has health care until July. But given where the economy is right now, she is thinking hard about what she should try to do next. She's been a recruiter in tech for almost a decade, but who needs a recruiter now while hiring is on hold?

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASPIAN'S "AKIKO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.