Guide to Firing Employees in Pennsylvania for Employers

April 15th 2024

Firing an employee is a challenging task for any employer, and it is essential to handle the process with care, professionalism, and compliance with relevant laws and regulations. In Pennsylvania, employers must be mindful of the legal considerations when terminating an employee’s employment.

This firing guide aims to provide employers in Pennsylvania with a comprehensive overview of the steps involved in the firing process, legal requirements, best practices, and potential pitfalls to avoid.

This firing guide covers:

What Does Firing an Employee in Pennsylvania Involve?
Differentiating between Firing, Layoffs, and Resignations in Pennsylvania
Why Does a Well-Planned Termination Process Matter in Pennsylvania?
Termination Laws in Pennsylvania: What You Need to Know
Legal Implications of Wrongful Termination in Pennsylvania
Required Documents for Employers and Terminated Employees in Pennsylvania
Who is Responsible for Firing Employees in Pennsylvania?
How Long is the Termination Process in Pennsylvania?
How Can You Prepare for Termination in Pennsylvania?
Steps for a Respectful Termination Process in Pennsylvania
Post-Termination: What Happens Next After Terminating an Employee in Pennsylvania?
Legal Considerations During Termination in Pennsylvania
Bonus: Best Practices for Reducing Litigation Risks in Pennsylvania

What Does Firing an Employee in Pennsylvania Involve?

Firing an employee in Pennsylvania involves several key steps to ensure compliance with federal and state laws, protect the rights of both the employer and the employee, and mitigate potential legal risks. Throughout the termination process, effective communication, empathy, and adherence to legal requirements are essential to ensure a fair and lawful termination of employment in Pennsylvania.

Differentiating between Firing, Layoffs, and Resignations in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, there are legal distinctions between firing, layoffs, and resignations:

Firing in Pennsylvania

Firing, also known as termination or dismissal, occurs when an employer ends the employment relationship with an employee. In Pennsylvania, employment is “at-will,” meaning either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, as long as it is not illegal (discriminatory or retaliatory). However, there may be contractual agreements or labor laws that provide additional protections or requirements for termination.

Layoffs in Pennsylvania

Layoffs occur when an employer temporarily or permanently reduces its workforce due to economic reasons, restructure, or other business needs. In Pennsylvania, employers must comply with state and federal laws regarding layoffs, which includes providing advance notice under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. The state also has regulations regarding unemployment compensation for employees who are laid off.

Resignations in Pennsylvania

Resignation happens when an employee voluntarily chooses to end their employment with an employer. It could be due to finding a new career opportunity, personal reasons, dissatisfaction with the current job, or retirement. Employees are not entitled to the Pennsylvania unemployment benefits if they voluntarily resign from their job, unless there is an exceptional circumstance (e.g., constructive discharge).

Why Does a Well-Planned Termination Process Matter in Pennsylvania?

A well-planned termination process is crucial in Pennsylvania, for several reasons:

  • Compliance with Legal Requirements: Pennsylvania has laws and regulations governing termination of employment. By following a well-planned termination process, employers can ensure compliance with state and federal laws, avoiding potential legal disputes, claims of wrongful termination, or costly litigation.
  • Mitigating Legal Risks: Terminating an employee without proper documentation, notice, or justification can expose employers to legal risks. A well-planned termination process helps mitigate these risks by ensuring that the termination decision is based on legitimate reasons and is conducted fairly and transparently.
  • Protecting Company Reputation: Terminations conducted in a haphazard or disrespectful manner can damage the reputation of the company. A well-planned termination process, which includes treating the employees with dignity and respect, can help protect the company’s reputation and maintain positive relationships with current and former employees.
  • Maintaining Employee Morale and Productivity: Poorly handled terminations can negatively impact the morale and productivity of remaining employees. A well-planned termination process, which includes clear communication and support for employees affected by the termination, can help minimize the disruptions and maintain morale and productivity in the workplace.
  • Avoiding Unemployment Claims: In Pennsylvania, employees may be eligible for unemployment benefits, depending on the circumstances of their termination. A well-planned termination process can help employers defend against potential unemployment claims and reduce their financial liability.

Termination Laws in Pennsylvania: What You Need to Know

In Pennsylvania, employers must know the key state and federal laws relevant to termination:

  • Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA): The PHRA prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability, age, and other protected characteristics.
  • Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law: The Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law governs the timing and manner of wage payments to employees, including final paychecks upon termination.
  • Pennsylvania Child Labor Law: The Pennsylvania Child Labor Law regulates the employment of minors (under the age of 18), including restrictions on house work, prohibited occupations, and work permits.
  • Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law: This law provides unemployment benefits to eligible individuals who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It establishes eligibility criteria, benefit amounts, and administrative procedures for the unemployment compensation program.
  • Pennsylvania Equal Pay Law: This law prohibits wage discrimination based on sex by requiring equal pay for equal work performed by employees of different sexes.
  • Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws: The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on color, race, religion, sex, and national origin. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employment discrimination against employees who are 40 years of age or older. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination based on disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities.
  • Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act: The WARN Act requires employers with 100 or more employees to provide a 60-day advance notice to employees in the event of plant closings, mass layoffs, or significant reductions in workforce.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): The FMLA provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons. Employers who are covered by FMLA must not terminate employees for taking such leave benefits.
  • Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA): COBRA requires employers with 20 or more employees to offer continuation coverage to employees and their benefits who lose health coverage due to certain qualifying events, including employment termination.

Wrongful termination in Pennsylvania occurs when an employee is fired for reasons that violate federal or state laws. Here are the legal implications of wrongful termination in Pennsylvania:

  • Discrimination: Employers in Pennsylvania cannot terminate employees based on protected characteristics.
  • Retaliation: It is illegal for employers in Pennsylvania to terminate an employee in retaliation for exercising their legal rights.
  • Violation of Employment Contract: If an employee has an employment contract that specifies the terms and conditions of employment, terminating the employee in violation of the contract could lead to a claim for breach of contract.
  • Public Policy Violation: Terminating an employee for reasons that violate public policy can also lead to a claim for wrongful termination. An example of this violation is terminating an employee for refusing to engage in illegal activities.
  • Defamation: If an employer makes false and damaging statements about an employee in connection with their termination, the employee may have grounds for a defamation lawsuit.
  • Emotional Distress: In some cases, wrongful termination can cause emotional distress to the terminated employee, leading to a claim for damages.

Employers may face potential liabilities for back pay, reinstatement, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs. Employees who believe they have been wrongfully terminated may file a lawsuit or complaint with the Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).

Required Documents for Employers and Terminated Employees in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, when an employee is terminated, both the employer and the terminated employee have certain obligations regarding documentation.

Employers’ Requirements

  • Termination Letter or Notice: Employers should provide a termination letter or notice to the employee, clearly stating the reasons for termination and the effective date of termination. This document should be kept in the employee’s personnel file for recordkeeping purposes.
  • Final Paycheck: Employers are required to provide the terminated employee with their final paycheck, including any accrued but unused vacation or paid time off. The final paycheck should be issued on or before the next regular payday following the termination date.
  • COBRA Notification: If the terminated employee is eligible for continuation of health insurance coverage under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), the employer must provide the employee with a COBRA notification explaining their rights and options for continued coverage.
  • Return of Company Property: Employers must collect any company property (e.g., keys, badges, laptops, and other company-owned equipment) from the terminated employee. Provide a receipt documenting the return of these items.
  • Unemployment Compensation Information: Employers should provide the terminated employee with information about how to apply for unemployment compensation benefits in Pennsylvania, including any required forms or documentation.

Terminated Employees’ Requirements

  • Documentation of Termination: Terminated employees can request a copy of their termination letter or notice for their records. This documentation can be useful for unemployment claims, job searches, or future reference.
  • COBRA Election Form: If a terminated employee is eligible for COBRA continuation coverage, the employee must complete and return the COBRA election form within the specified time period to continue their health insurance coverage.
  • Severance Pay Agreement: If the employer offers a severance package, the terminated employee is required to review and sign the severance pay agreement outlining the terms and conditions of the severance, including any non-disclosure or non-compete clauses.
  • Exit Interview: Some employers conduct exit interviews with terminated employees to gather feedback and insights about their employment experience. Terminated employees should participate when asked and provide feedback about their reasons for leaving and suggestions for improvement.
  • Update Personal Information: Terminated employees should ensure that their contact information is up-to-date with the employer, especially if they are expecting any further communications regarding unemployment benefits, COBRA, or other related matters.

Who is Responsible for Terminating in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, the responsibility for firing employees involves collaboration between the Human Resources (HR), managers, and legal counsel. Here is an overview of the roles and responsibilities of each:

Role and Responsibilities of Human Resources 

  • Develops and implements company policies and procedures related to employee termination. The HR ensures that these policies comply with relevant employment laws and regulations in Pennsylvania.
  • Provides guidance and training to managers on how to handle termination processes effectively and ethically.
  • Oversees the documentation of termination-related matters, including maintaining records of employee performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, and termination notices.

Role and Responsibilities of Managers

  • Manage employee performance, provide feedback, coach, and provide corrective action as necessary to address performance issues.
  • Make the decision to terminate an employee based on performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, or other relevant factors.
  • Communicate the decision to terminate the employee, providing clear and specific reasons for the termination and answering questions the employee may have about the decision.

Role and Responsibilities of Legal Counsel

  • Provides advice to HR and management on legal compliance issues related to employee termination, including anti-discrimination laws, wage and hour laws, and contractual obligations.
  • Assesses potential legal risks associated with termination decisions and provides guidance on mitigating those risks to protect the organization from liability.
  • Reviews termination documentation, such as termination letters or severance agreements to ensure legal accuracy and compliance with applicable laws.

How Long is the Termination Process in Pennsylvania?

The duration of the termination process in Pennsylvania can vary depending on several factors. Generally, the termination process may take a few days to several weeks as it involves several steps. Here’s a rough outline of the termination process timeline:

  • Decision-making: The process begins with the decision to terminate an employee, which may be made by a manager, HR personnel, or other relevant stakeholders within the company. The time taken to make this decision may vary depending on the issue leading to termination, availability of relevant information, and any necessary consultations or deliberations.
  • Documentation: Once the decision to terminate has been made, the next step is to prepare the necessary documentation, including the termination letter outlining the reasons and effective date of termination. The documentation process may take a few days to complete, depending on the situation and the need for review.
  • Meeting with the Employee: After the termination documentation has been prepared, a meeting is scheduled to communicate the decision to terminate the employment. The termination meeting should be conducted privately and respectfully, allowing the employee to ask questions and discuss the decision. The timing of this meeting may depend on the availability of the employee, managers, and HR personnel.
  • Arrange Logistics: Following the termination meeting, logistical arrangements must be made including collecting company property from the terminated employee, finalizing compensation and benefits, and providing information about unemployment benefits and other resources available to the employee. These logistic arrangements may take a few days to complete.
  • Transition Period: After the termination has been finalized, there may be a transition period during which the departing employee has to wrap up any outstanding work or transfer responsibilities to remaining employees. The length of the transition period may vary depending on the nature of the employer’s role and the company’s needs.

How Can You Prepare for Termination in Pennsylvania?

Preparing for termination in Pennsylvania involves several steps to ensure the process is handled smoothly, legally, and respectfully of both the employer and employee. Here is how you can prepare:

  • Review Policies and Procedures: Employers must familiarize themselves with the company’s policies and procedures related to termination. These policies and procedures must comply with federal and Pennsylvania labor laws and provide guidance on the termination process.
  • Document Performance Issues: Employers have to maintain accurate and detailed records of the employee’s performance, conduct, and any disciplinary actions taken. In the documentation, the employee’s poor performance, misconduct, or violation of company policies must be written, along with any corrective actions or warnings given to the employee.
  • Review Employment Contracts: If the employee is covered by an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, review the terms and conditions related to termination to ensure compliance with contractual obligations.
  • Consult Legal Counsel: Consider consulting with a legal counsel experienced in Pennsylvania employment law to review the termination decision and ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations. A legal counsel can provide guidance on potential legal risks and help develop a strategy for conducting the termination process.
  • Prepare Employee Documentation: Employers must prepare the necessary documentation for the termination, including the termination letter and any relevant information about final pay, benefits continuation, and return of company property.
  • Plan the Termination Meeting: Schedule a private meeting with the employee to communicate the decision to terminate their employment. Choose a quiet and neutral location where the meeting can take place without interruptions. Employers should anticipate questions or concerns the employee may have and plan how to address them professionally and respectfully.
  • Coordinate Logistics: Employees must return company property (e.g., smartphones, laptops, keys, access cards, and other company-owned equipment). Besides the equipment, employers have to coordinate with the IT and security department to remove the departing employees’ access to the facilities.
  • Prepare for the Employee’s Reaction: Be prepared for various reactions from the terminated employee, they may feel sadness, anger, or disbelief. Employers need to approach the termination meeting with empathy and compassion. Prepare to listen to the employee’s perspective while remaining firm in the decision to terminate.
  • Communicate with Remaining Employees: Consider how you will communicate the termination of the employee to the rest of the team professionally and respectfully, while maintaining confidentiality. Employers must reassure the remaining employees of their value to the organization and address any questions or concerns.

Steps for a Respectful Termination Process in Pennsylvania

Conducting a respectful termination process in Pennsylvania is crucial for maintaining positive workplace relationships, upholding the dignity of the terminated employee, and minimizing the risk of legal disputes. Here are steps to ensure a respectful termination process:

  • Preparation and Documentation: Before the termination meeting, gather all relevant documentation related to the employee’s performance, conduct, and any disciplinary actions taken. Ensure that the decision to terminate is based on legitimate reasons and is well-documented.
  • Schedule a Private Meeting: Arrange a private meeting with the employee to communicate the decision to terminate their employment. Choose a quiet and neutral location where the conversation can take place privately and without interruptions.
  • Communicate Respectfully: Begin the meeting by expressing appreciation for the employee’s contributions to the company. Clearly and respectfully communicate the reasons for the termination, focusing on behavior or performance issues rather than personal attacks.
  • Listen and Provide Support: Allow the employee to express their thoughts and feelings about the termination process. Listen attentively and empathetically, acknowledge the departing employee’s emotions and concerns.
  • Provide Information and Resources: Provide the employee with information about logistical matters including the returning of company property, finalizing compensation and benefits, and accessing COBRA continuation coverage for health insurance. Employers must offer resources and assistance to help them navigate the transition period.
  • Respect Confidentiality: Maintain confidentiality about the termination process, respect the privacy and dignity of the terminated employee. Employers must not discuss the details of the termination with other employees unless necessary for business reasons.
  • Follow Up: After the termination meeting, follow up with the employee to provide any additional information or support they may need. Employers need to reiterate their willingness to assist the terminated employee during the transition period.
  • Handle Logistics Professionally: Employers need to ensure that all logistical matters are handled promptly and professionally.
  • Maintain Professionalism and Respect: Throughout the termination process, maintain a professional and respectful demeanor. Do not blame or criticize the employee, focus on facilitating a smooth and respectful transition for both the departing and remaining employees.

Post-Termination: What Happens After Terminating Employee in Pennsylvania?

After terminating an employee in Pennsylvania, several post-termination steps should be taken to ensure a smooth transition and to address any remaining obligations. Here is what happens next:

  • Final Paycheck: Employers have to ensure that the terminated employee receives their final paycheck, including any accrued paid time off or vacation leave. The final paycheck must be issued on or before the next regular payday following the termination date.
  • Benefits Continuation: Provide the terminated employee with information about their options for continuing health insurance coverage under COBRA. The employee may be eligible for continuing their health insurance coverage for a limited period after termination, although they will be responsible for paying the full premium.
  • Return of Company Property: Collect any company property from the terminated employee. Employer needs to provide a receipt documenting the return of the equipment to avoid disputes later on.
  • Access to Personnel Records: Upon the terminated employee’s request, provide them access to their personnel record. Employees have the right to review and copy their personnel files, including performance evaluations, disciplinary records, and other relevant documents.
  • COBRA Notification: Provide the terminated employee with a COBRA election notice outlining their rights and options for continuing health insurance coverage under COBRA. This notice should be provided within a specified timeframe following the termination of employment.
  • Unemployment Benefits: Advise the terminated employee on how to apply for unemployment compensation through the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Employees who are terminated through no fault of their own may be eligible for unemployment benefits.
  • Exit Interview: Conduct an exit interview with the terminated employee to gather feedback and insights about their employment experience. This can help employers identify areas for improvement and address any concerns the employee may have.
  • Communicate with Remaining Employees: Communicate the termination of the employee to the rest of the team professionally and respectfully, while maintaining confidentiality. Employers providing open communication can reassure remaining employees of their value to the organization and address any questions or concerns that they may have.
  • Legal Considerations: Employers must consult with a legal counsel to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations governing termination of employment in Pennsylvania. Address any potential legal risks or liabilities associated with the termination and take appropriate preventive actions to mitigate them.

Legal Considerations During Termination in Pennsylvania

During termination in Pennsylvania, employers must navigate several legal considerations to ensure compliance with state and federal laws and mitigate the risk of legal disputes. Here are some legal considerations:

  • At-Will Employment: Pennsylvania follows the “at-will” doctrine, which means employers can terminate employees for any reason, at any time, as long as it is not illegal. However, employers should be aware of exceptions to at-will employment.
  • Anti-Discrimination Laws: Employers in Pennsylvania are prohibited from terminating employees based on protected characteristics (e.g., age, race, color, nationality, sex, genetic information, or disability). Terminations motivated by discriminatory reasons can lead to legal liability under federal laws.
  • Retaliation Protections: Pennsylvania law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in protected activities. Termination due to retaliatory reasons can result in legal claims under federal and state anti-retaliation laws.
  • COBRA Compliance: Employers with 20 or more employees are required to offer continuation coverage under COBRA to terminated employees and their dependents. COBRA election notices ensure compliance with the continuation coverage requirements.
  • Final Paycheck Laws: Pennsylvania law requires employers to provide terminated employees with their final paycheck on or before the next regular payday. Employers who fail to timely provide final wages may face penalties.
  • Unemployment Compensation: Terminated employees may be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits in Pennsylvania if they meet certain eligibility requirements. Employers should provide terminated employees with information about how to apply for unemployment benefits.
  • Documentation and Recordkeeping: Employers should maintain accurate and detailed records of the termination process. Proper documentation can be crucial in defending against potential legal claims.
  • Consultation with Legal Counsel: Given the complexity of federal and state employment law, employers should consider consulting with legal counsel to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations and to mitigate legal risks associated with termination.

Bonus: Best Practices for Reducing Litigation Risks in Pennsylvania

Reducing litigation risks in Pennsylvania requires employers to implement the best practices throughout the employee relationship, from hiring to termination. Here are some best practices for employers to consider:

  • Clear Company Policies and Procedures: Develop and communicate clear and comprehensive employment policies and procedures that comply with Pennsylvania and federal laws. Employers must ensure that employees receive a copy of the policies and provide regular training to managers and employees on their rights and responsibilities.
  • Consistent Enforcement: Apply policies and procedures consistently across all employees to avoid claims of discrimination or unfair treatment. Employers should also ensure that disciplinary actions and terminations are based on objective criteria and are applied uniformly.
  • Document Everything: Maintain thorough and accurate documentation of employee performance, conduct, disciplinary actions, and other relevant matters. Employers can include conversations, warnings, and performance evaluations in the documentation.
  • Regular Training and Education: Provide regular training to managers and supervisors on topics related to effective management practices. Employers should also educate employees on their rights and responsibilities in the workplace.
  • Open Communication: Foster open and transparent communication between management and employees. Encourage employees to raise concerns or report potential issues without fear of retaliation, and ensure all complaints are promptly and thoroughly investigated.
  • Legal Compliance: Stay informed about changes in federal and state employment laws and regulations.
  • Fair and Equitable Treatment: Treat all employees with fairness, dignity, and respect regardless of their protected data characteristics or status. Avoid making decisions based on stereotypes, biases, or discriminatory factors.
  • Consultation with Legal Counsel: Consult with experienced employment law attorneys in Pennsylvania to review policies, procedures, and practices, and to seek guidance on specific employment-related issues or disputes. Proactively address potential legal risks and take appropriate steps to mitigate them.
  • Introduce Alternative Dispute Resolution: Consider implementing alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, such as mediation or arbitration, to resolve employment-related disputes efficiently and cost-effectively while minimizing the risk of litigation.
  • Regular Review and Update: Regularly review and update employment policies, procedures, and practices to ensure compliance with changing laws and evolving best practices. Stay proactive in identifying and addressing potential areas of risk or concern.

Final Thoughts

Firing an employee in Pennsylvania is a crucial step that affects both workers and employers. For employers in Pennsylvania, familiarizing themselves with these laws and implementing the best practices helps mitigate legal risks, promote fairness and equity in the workplace, and maintain positive employee relations.

Important Cautionary Note

This content is provided for informational purposes only. While we make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, we cannot guarantee that it is free of errors or omissions. Users are advised to independently verify any critical information and should not solely rely on the content provided.