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Ask HR: Can I Get My Job Back After a Layoff?

A man in a blue suit posing for a photo.

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer 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 laid off due to loss of revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic. I was wondering, if my employer was hiring again (my same position), do I automatically get my job back? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm sorry to hear you lost your job. It's a difficult situation that so many hardworking Americans know all too well.

Unfortunately, there's no guarantee you will get your job back, even if your company is hiring for the same position. Unless you signed a contract or an agreement, employers are not required to rehire laid-off workers.

However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to get rehired at your company. Employers frequently rehire laid-off workers for myriad reasons. For example, it tends to be more cost-effective than recruiting and hiring someone out of network, and it also demonstrates loyalty to solid employees.

You don't mention how long you were at your company, but when rehiring, many organizations consider an employee's tenure, job performance, and whether the layoff was part of a reorganization or just a slowdown in business. As you mentioned, your layoff was due to the financial impact of COVID-19, not your work ethic or performance.

If you received a layoff notice, do your research. Check to see if it mentions anything about being rehired. I also recommend reaching out to the company's HR team for additional guidance on rehire policies and practices.

Find out what the business practice is and if the company plans to recall any workers. Share your interest in other opportunities within the organization, even if they may be a bit different from your prior role. This will demonstrate dedication—and that you're flexible and agile.

And for some good news: We're continuing to see more businesses reopen as the economy recovers. Keep your head up, and don't be too hard on yourself. I hope you can find a position that's a good fit for you soon!

Question: Can an employee cite a religious exemption to not wear a mask? We currently have a mask and vaccination requirement for our staff, and if someone is not vaccinated and there is an outbreak, they can be sent home for the duration of the outbreak. Can we do the same for those that claim exemption from masks? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Thanks for asking this timely question. Yes, an employee can cite a religious exemption from wearing a mask.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This would include their ability to wear a face mask.

That said, we've heard from public health officials and key federal agencies that wearing a mask is a critical way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. It's common sense for employers to encourage workers to wear protective gear, to protect not only themselves but also others around them.

If an employee cannot or does not want to wear a mask due to a religious belief, I strongly recommend discussing this request with the employee and providing an alternative measure, if feasible. However, in some situations, requested accommodations may pose an undue hardship on the employer's business. In those cases, you may not have to accommodate the employee.

Remember, though, that if an employee claims religious discrimination, your organization may need to demonstrate the undue hardship to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII.

Even though you may have a requirement to send someone home for not wearing a mask, I advise starting a candid conversation with the worker first, then deciding a course of action. Maybe you can come up with a solution, such as teleworking or a staggered work schedule, that enforces workplace health and safety concerns while bearing in mind the rights of the employee.

Be well!