CHICAGO -- A laid-off coal mine worker lost his bid to sue the operator a southern Illinois coal mine over a mass layoff he alleged ran afoul of federal employment law.
Judges Kenneth F. Ripple, Daniel A. Manion and Diane S. Sykes of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided Sept. 26 with a district judge in finding that the layoff of about 150 workers at Hamilton County Coal’s Illinois plant in 2016 was handled within the bounds of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act. This dealt a blow to the class action lawsuit filed by plaintiff Carl Leeper, one of the employees affected by the layoff.
The WARN Act requires employers to give workers 60 days’ notice of a mass layoff, defined as an event in which 33 percent or more of employees experiences an “employment loss.” Leeper alleged Hamilton County Coal defied the act Feb. 5, 2016, when it announced a temporary layoff expected to end Aug. 1.
Under the act, “employment loss” is defined as permanent termination, a layoff lasting longer than six months, or an extended period in which work hours are cut by at least 50 percent per month for six months. None of these things, the court decided, happened in the Hamilton County Coal layoffs.
Leeper and the other employees were notified in writing of a layoff beginning the next day. The notice told employees for the period from Feb. 6 until Aug. 1, they would be effectively terminated, receiving no pay or benefits. The notice explained they could apply for unemployment during this period or could seek other work, and that on Aug. 1 they could return to work at Hamilton County Coal, according to court documents.
About one-third of the laid-off workers returned to work before the layoff ended.
Leeper filed his complaint about one month into the temporary layoff. He alleged Hamilton County Coal was obligated to provide 60 days’ notice because more than 33 percent of the mine’s workers suffered “employment termination.”
The courts responded that, because the layoff did not exceed six months, workers had not experienced employment loss and because one-third of the laid-off employees returned to work before the six-month period was complete, the 33 percent threshold was not met.
“Even construed in Leeper’s favor, the record reveals that Hamilton announced a temporary cessation of his employment,” Sykes wrote in the appellate opinion. “The relevant distinction between a layoff and an employment termination is whether the termination was expected to be temporary or permanent.”
Leeper’s alternative claim was that work hours had been reduced by more than 50 percent during the layoff. He argued that the hours of laid-off workers had effectively been cut to zero. Neither the district nor appellate court were swayed by this argument.
“Under his reasoning, every layoff exceeding six months would also constitute a six-month reduction in hours of work,” the court determined. “A reduction in hours of work – unlike the other two events [defined in the act] is not a cessation of the worker’s employment relationship. …(It’s) a difference in kind, not degree.”
Because the plaintiff could not show that the layoff met the WARN Act’s definition of a mass layoff, the court ruled, the employer was not obligated to provide 60 days’ notice.