Ask HR: Explaining a Layoff Caused by COVID-19

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP May 29, 2020
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


Question: I was one of many workers at my company who recently got laid off due to COVID-19. It wasn't a performance issue, but a budget issue. When I am applying to new jobs, how should I explain this on my resume and to hiring managers? –Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'll start by saying this: Don't overthink this one. You will bounce back.

Since the outbreak, more than 40 million U.S. workers have filed for unemployment. Now, that is shocking, and it underscores the urgency of returning swiftly and safely to work. But I mention it only to let you know that hiring managers will not be strangers to your situation. They know millions of Americans have been laid off or furloughed, many by no fault of their own.

In other words, the context of this crisis will speak for itself. However, you also have an advantage since your layoff had nothing to do with your performance. Highlight this in the story you tell potential employers—via cover letters, resumes and interviews—and you will position yourself for success.  

While it's not required, you could include a reason for leaving a job next to the dates of your employment on your resume. Simply state something along the lines of "laid off due to COVID-19." Doing so provides context that could help dissolve concerns and get your foot in the door.

If a position requires a cover letter, that may be an even better place to mention and briefly explain—emphasis on "briefly," because you shouldn't fixate on the past. Instead, focus on the future, because employers care more about how you're competent for the job and a fit for their culture.

Perhaps the best time and place to explain your layoff, however, would be during the interview. If you're asked about your departure, do this: Be honest. The facts are in your favor. Yes, you were laid off, but it had everything to do with COVID-19 and nothing to do with your performance, and you're ready to clock in and get back to work.  

Good luck!


Question: My father has Type 2 diabetes and asthma. Can I work from home or get excused from work since my father is at a risk of contracting the coronavirus? He lives with me, and I take care of him. – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'll be blunt: You can't, and shouldn't, ask to be excused from work. Your wish could very well be granted—but not in the way you expected.

At present, there is no law entitling an employee to be excused on the basis of having a family member at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Additionally, employment is at will in almost all states, meaning you or your employer can terminate your employment at any time with or without reason. So if your question is approached or phrased inappropriately, you could offend or anger your boss. Considering the millions of Americans now without jobs and the good fortune of still having yours, that's a risk I'd avoid.  

That said, you are not without options. To understand what these are, talk to your manager or HR. Share your concerns about being in the office and returning home to an at-risk family member.

You didn't mention your job, organization or industry, but telework may be a solution. After all, 64 percent of salaried employees and 49 percent of hourly employees are now working remotely. Perhaps your employer already offers this benefit. But if it doesn't, consider working out a plan with your manager or HR. Outline how working remotely would work for you, what equipment you would need, when you would return to the office and why this arrangement would be best for all parties.

It's also possible, given your father's chronic conditions, that you are eligible for unpaid time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act or a similar state law. To take this leave, you would need to inform your employer, which may request documentation from your father's medical care provider. If granted leave, you might consider also taking any available paid time off you might have.

Lastly, if you remain concerned and neither telework nor leave pan out, you could try filing for unemployment. Unemployment benefits are generally available to workers who are unable to work due to no fault of their own.

I hope your father stays healthy—and you find peace of mind soon. 



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