COVID-19 is not a ‘natural disaster’ that allows for abrupt layoffs – court

Picture taken September 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jackson Njehia

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  • Sudden dismissals are only allowed in case of weather events, earthquakes
  • Federal law generally requires 60 days notice of termination

(Reuters) – The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was not a “natural disaster” exempting businesses from a federal law requiring workers to be given advance notice of mass layoffs, a court ruled on Wednesday. appeal, in a victory for three former employees of the drilling company.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) exemption was meant to apply strictly to unpredictable geological and weather events such as earthquakes and floods, not pandemics.

The court ruled in favor of three former employees of US Well Services Inc who say the drilling company abruptly laid off most of its workforce in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The ruling is the first by a U.S. appellate court on whether COVID exempted companies from the WARN Act, an issue that has divided federal judges. The law requires 60 days notice for mass layoffs, but exempts workforce reductions caused by natural disasters or unforeseen business circumstances.

Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had backed U.S. Well Services, arguing in briefs that a ruling against the company would open the door to a flood of similar lawsuits against the many businesses forced to close amid the pandemic.

A federal judge in Houston had denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the proposed class action lawsuit in 2020. She said the pandemic was not man-made and had infected or killed millions, which which made it a natural disaster.

But the 5th Circuit said Wednesday that the WARN Act exemption, which includes as an example “a flood, earthquake or drought that is currently ravaging the farmlands of the United States,” was not intended to apply so broadly.

“Congress knew and could have included terms such as disease, pandemic, or virus in statutory WARN Act language,” Circuit Judge Carl Stewart wrote. “The fact that he chose not to support the inference that these terms were deliberately excluded.”

The panel included circuit judges Edith Clement and Jennifer Walker Elrod.

The case is Easom v. US Well Services Inc, 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-20202.

For Complainants: Gabriel Assaad of McDonald’s Worley

For US Well Services: David Korn of Phelps Dunbar

Read more:

Judges unsure if COVID is a ‘natural disaster’ under layoff notice law

Layoffs triggered by COVID-19 pandemic did not require notice – judge

Business groups: Pandemic layoffs did not require notice

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