This post continues our comprehensive overview of New York's new WARN regulations. In yesterday's post, we addressed coverage and triggering events. Today, we address notice requirements, exceptions to the notice requirements and penalties and enforcement.
How May Notice be Served?
Notice must be served 90 days prior to layoff. It may be served by first class mail, personal delivery with optional signed receipt, or by e-mail. The notice must be sent on the employer's official letterhead. The new regulations require that the notice be signed by an individual who has "the authority to bind the employer." Additionally, the signatory must attest to the truthfulness of all information provided in the notice. If the notice is sent by first class mail, it must be post-marked at least 90 days prior to the employment loss.
As noted, the revised regulations provide for the option of sending a NY WARN notice by e-mail. The regulations state that e-mail may be used where "all affected employees have regular access in the workplace to personal computers at which e-mail may be received and viewed during work hours." The following additional requirements must also be satisfied:
1. The employer must be able to demonstrate that the e-mail notice was received by each affected employee;
2. The e-mail address used must be an employer provided e-mail address, used in the conduct of business;
3. The e-mail must be marked "urgent;"
4. If the e-mail is returned as "undeliverable," notice must be given as expeditiously as possible (e.g. overnight delivery, hand delivery, inter-office mail, etc.);
5. If an attempt to deliver the notices exceeds five days, the employer must extend the notice period by the number of days between the time notice was first attempted and when it was finally effectuated; and
6. The e-mail notice must be sent via the employer's computer network.
Who Receives Notice?
The following individuals must receive notice under the NY WARN Act: affected employees; representative(s) of affected employees; the Commissioner of Labor; and the Local Workforce Investment Board(s) ("LWIB"). An employee who may experience an employment loss due to seniority bumping rights, for example, must also receive a notice, as long as the individual can be identified at the time notice is required to be given.
Under the revised regulations, the DOL specifically states that service of notice upon the "chief elected official of the local unit of government" in accordance with the federal WARN statute, is not sufficient to meet the notice requirements to the LWIB under the NY WARN Act. Similarly, service of notice on the LWIB may not be sufficient for notice to the chief elected official under the federal WARN statute.
Contents of the Notice
The regulations provide a detailed list of information that must be included in each notice, depending on the recipient of the notice. Notice to the affected employees must be in a language that is understandable to the employees. The notice must include, among other things: the expected date of the first separation of employees and the date the individual employee will be separated; a statement as to whether the action is temporary or permanent and whether any bumping rights exist; the identity and contact information of an employer representative; and information concerning unemployment insurance, job training and available re-employment services. In addition, the notice to an affected employee must also include the paragraph set forth below, with the underlined sentence added by the revised regulations:
You are also hereby notified that, as a result of your employment loss, you may be eligible to receive job retraining, re-employment services, or other assistance with obtaining new employment upon your termination. You may also be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits after your last day of employment. The New York State Department of Labor will contact your employer to arrange to provide additional information regarding these benefits and services to you through workshops, interviews, and other activities that will be scheduled prior to the time your employment ends. You can also access reemployment information and apply for unemployment insurance benefits on the Department's website, or you may use the contact information provided on the website to contact the Department for further information and assistance.
The notices to the Commissioner of Labor, union representative, and the local Workforce Investment Board, as described in the regulations, require certain additional information, including, for example, the date and method of delivery of the NY WARN notices, a sample of the NY WARN notice provided to the employees, and a statement as to whether other required NY WARN notices were delivered.
Exceptions to Notice
NY WARN has several exceptions to the notice requirements for certain events.
Temporary Facilities and Project Completions
No notice is required under NY WARN if the plant closing is of a temporary facility or if the plant closing or mass layoff results from the completion of a particular project or undertaking and the affected employees were hired with the understanding that their employment was limited to the duration of the facility or project or undertaking. The revised regulations require that an employer be able to demonstrate that it informed each employee at time of hire that the job was temporary.
The revised regulations also exempt seasonal employment from coverage under NY WARN. Thus, if a layoff or closing is the result of a particular seasonal project or the affected employees were hired with the understanding their employment was limited to the seasonal project, an employer need not provide notice to the affected employees under NY WARN. However, the employer must demonstrate that it informed each employee at the time of hire that the job was seasonal. Additionally, the revised regulations state that employment in an industry that is typically seasonal in nature does not necessarily make the employment seasonal for purposes of NY WARN.
Natural Disasters and Strikes/Lockouts
NY WARN includes an exception from the notice requirement for employment losses due to "any form of natural disaster" including floods, earthquakes, droughts, storms, tidal waves, tsunamis, or similar effects of nature. An employer also is not required to serve written notice where it is permanently replacing an economic striker, as defined under the National Labor Relations Act.
NY WARN contains a faltering company exception which eliminates the need for notice if: (1) at the time notice would have been required, the employer was actively seeking capital or business; (2) there was a realistic opportunity to obtain the capital or business; (3) the needed capital or business if obtained would enable the employer to avoid or postpone the employment action; and (4) the employer reasonably and in good faith believed that the giving of notice would have precluded the employer from obtaining the needed capital or business. The regulations state that the faltering company exception will be viewed on a "company-wide" basis. A company with "access to capital markets or with cash reserves" cannot avail itself of this exception by looking solely at the financial condition of the single site of employment. As noted, the revised regulations make explicit that employment losses caused by a bankruptcy may still trigger notice under NY WARN.
NY WARN dispenses with the notice requirement if the need for notice was not "reasonably foreseeable" at the time notice would have been required. A business circumstance is not reasonably foreseeable, according to the proposed regulations, upon the occurrence of some "sudden, dramatic, and unexpected action or condition outside the employer's control." Examples in the regulations include: "a principal client's sudden and unexpected termination of a major contract with the employer, a strike at a major supplier of the employer, an unanticipated and dramatic major economic downturn, or a government-ordered closing of an employment site that occurs without notice."
Penalties and Enforcement
Unlike the federal WARN Act, which may be enforced only by commencing an action in court, NY WARN may be enforced by NYS DOL through its administrative procedures, in addition to a cause of action in court. The agency's authority includes its ability to examine "any information of an employer" that is necessary to assess whether a violation occurred or the applicability of any defense. The revised regulations include a provision which allows the DOL to share a NY WARN Act violation with other public entities who are making fitness, responsible contractor or due diligence inquiries.
An employer found to have violated NY WARN is subject to a civil penalty of not more than $500 for each day of the employer's violation. An employer also is liable to each employee who did not receive the proper notice for backpay and benefits for the period of violation, up to a maximum of 60 days. According to NYS DOL Counsel's Office, backpay liability under NY WARN is calculated by determining the wages owed to an employee up to a maximum of 60 days' wages. Under the federal WARN law, backpay liability is generally measured by counting the number of work days that would have been worked in a 60 day period and assessing liability equal to wages that would have been earned during that period. Thus, backpay liability under NY WARN is likely to be greater than under the federal WARN statute.
An employer is not subject to the civil penalty under NY WARN if, in lieu of notice, it pays the affected employees all of their wages and benefits for the notice period, within three weeks from the date the employer orders the plant closing or other triggering event, and the employer includes a short form notice to the employees at the time of their final wage payment or termination.
An employer's liability may also be reduced by any voluntary payments made by the employer to the affected employees, which were not required to satisfy any legal obligations. Therefore, severance or other payments that may be required under a collective bargaining agreement or pursuant to a separation agreement will not be credited against an employer's liability.
Finally, the revised regulations added that where an employer fails to give notice, the period of violation is 90 days. However, the regulations do not reconcile this violation period provision with the 60-day maximum penalty provision. At this point, it remains somewhat unclear what the effect is of this new provision in the revised regulations and how to reconcile it within the 60-day maximum backpay liability under NY WARN.
While NY WARN contains many provisions and requirements that mirror those found in the federal WARN statute, there are also significant differences in coverage, triggering events, and the form of notice. Further, some of the revised emergency regulations significantly affect an employer's obligations under NY WARN and will require particular attention from New York employers that are contemplating work force reductions.