Getting fired or deciding to leave your job is probably a very difficult moment in your professional life. The good news is that the transition can be made a bit easier if you receive severance pay or other benefits in a severance agreement.
But these benefits come at a price: your employer wants something in return, such as a general release promising not to sue the employer for possible employment law violations. Your employer might also ask you to sign a nonsolicitation or noncompete agreement, where you are prohibited from soliciting the employer’s clients or working in a specific geographical area for a set period of time.
Are these trade-offs worth it? It depends. A variety of factors can affect this decision—and a variety of laws may apply, providing a range of employee rights depending on where you live.
Federal laws may protect employees nationwide, but some states have specific laws that add additional employment protections. Then there are a small number of localities, like Alexandria, Virginia, that have their own anti-discrimination employment laws. Here’s what you need to know if you are offered a severance agreement in Alexandria.
1. You May Be Protected by Alexandria’s Own Anti-Discrimination Law
Alexandria workers have several different layers of laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. At the top level, there are federal laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Federal law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of a variety of characteristics, including:
- National origin
Next, at the state level, there is the Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA). It prohibits smaller employers from discriminating against employees on the same characteristics as federal law and adds marital status as another protected characteristic.
Finally, we reach the local level, where the Alexandria Human Rights Code (HRC) provides yet more protections, such as a prohibition on employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
2. Your Protections Under the Alexandria HRC Apply to Smaller Employers
Besides making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation, the Alexandria HRC applies to employers not otherwise covered by federal or state law.
Most federal employment laws, such as Title VII, only apply to employers with 15 or more employees. The VHRA only kicks in when an employer has at least six employees. The Alexandria HRC, on the other hand, applies to employers with as few as four employees. This greatly expands the number of employees who will receive at least some additional protection against employment discrimination.
3. You Can Consult With Alexandria’s Own Enforcement Agency
Anti-discrimination laws don’t mean much if they can’t be enforced. Therefore, Alexandria has its own Office of Human Rights to investigate complaints of employment discrimination, not only under the Alexandria HRC but under federal laws as well, including Title VII.
There’s also the Alexandria Human Rights Commission, which administers specific aspects of the Alexandria HRC. Most notably, this commission decides whether an employer has violated the Alexandria HRC; imposes punishments, including civil penalties; and seeks judicial enforcement of its decisions.
You have other options for state and federal anti-discrimination enforcement. For the VHRA, the primary enforcement agency is Virginia’s Division of Human Rights, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal anti-discrimination employment laws.
4. You Won’t Have an Easy Time Getting Monetary Damages Under the Alexandria HRC
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news for Alexandria residents. Should a violation of the Alexandria HRC occur, employees face a challenge in obtaining monetary relief, such as back wages or punitive damages.
Why? The primary methods of enforcement for the Alexandria HRC are civil penalties levied on the employer or orders telling the employer what to do to comply with the Alexandria HRC requirements. These penalties are only available after the Commission holds a public hearing on whether the employer violated the Alexandria HRC.
5. You Have Limited Court Remedies Under the Alexandria HRC
Only after an employer ignores the Commission and refuses to make changes to stop discrimination can the Commission go to court to obtain “appropriate relief.” That relief can—finally—include monetary damages for the employee. But this court option is available only after the Commission consults with the city attorney and receives permission from the city council.
Given the uncertainty and the multiple administrative steps required, employees seeking monetary relief for employment discrimination in Alexandria may be better off looking for justice from the court system. However, filing a complaint with the Alexandria Office of Human Rights remains a viable option and could serve as leverage to obtain more severance pay or other benefits.
For More Information
Do you have questions about severance agreements that we haven’t answered? Need help applying this information to your own severance agreement? Please feel free to contact our office to discuss your specific situation with an experienced Alexandria employment attorney.