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Layoff Discrimination During Emergency Situations

South Carolina is an at-will state, meaning that generally, people may be laid off from work with no notice, for any reason. There are exceptions to this, all of which have to do with the legality of the reason for the firing. During the recent spread of the COVID-19 viral pandemic, the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC) has reported receiving a high influx of calls of people being laid off for a suspected discriminatory purpose. If this is you, please understand that you do have options for seeking redress for layoff discrimination during emergency situations.

Exceptions To At-Will Employment

Every U.S. state except Montana allows at-will employment practices, but most of them hold the same exceptions to it. South Carolina recognizes three. One is the implied contract exception—essentially, if someone can demonstrate that they had an express or implied employment contract, they cannot be terminated without breaching the contract. Another is the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which implies that both sides in a dispute will deal with each other fairly.

The third is the public policy exception, which holds that a worker cannot be terminated for refusing to break the law or otherwise comply with an employer’s “unlawful acts.” However, South Carolina courts have construed this exception extremely narrowly, and usually the result goes against the employee. While there is obviously no specific jurisprudence dealing with this specific issue, given the unique nature of the current pandemic, it is not likely that employees will be able to simply refuse to report to work without being laid off. The question is whether any layoffs are discriminatory or not.

Discriminatory Intent

Normally, unless a termination meets one of the exceptions to the at-will doctrine, an employer can fire someone for no real reason. However, if there is evidence that the termination was based on a protected characteristic, then an employer may run afoul of South Carolina’s (or the federal government’s) antidiscrimination laws. If an employer decides to lay off some of its employees due to the pandemic, they may generally do so, unless it can be shown that the reason is discriminatory.

For example, if an employer decides to lay off all its female employees because they believe that the women should be at home watching the children and the men should brave the pandemic, a laid-off employee may be able to file a discrimination claim on the basis of gender. Either the Human Affairs Commission or the Equal Employee Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may be able to mount such a claim, depending on who you would choose to bring such a charge with. But unless you can establish that your termination was based on a protected characteristic like gender, national origin, or religion, it may be difficult to prevail.

Call A South Carolina Employment Discrimination Attorney

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, losing one’s job has the potential to be catastrophic. It’s important that you know that you do have options for seeking redress for layoff discrimination during emergency situations. Attorney A. Christopher Potts is experienced in cases involving wrongful termination, and is happy to assist you. Contact the firm of Hitchcock & Potts today to speak to an attorney.

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