FiredWithoutCause.com helps laid off workers get fair severance pay

A new Web site is offering help for Canadians who are laid off from their jobs in getting better severance pay with a do-it-yourself style automated legal service.

FiredWithoutCause.com launched July 10 and offers free content as well as paid services. Recently fired workers can read a tutorial that is loaded with tips on how to negotiate with your employer for a better package. Or you can use a severance pay calculator for a $40 fee, or create a legal letter in a custom template for $20.

The site is run by Paradigm Shift Solutions Inc., a Vancouver-based company that is the creation of employment lawyer Chilwin Cheng and 18-year IT industry veteran Jim Hamlin.

It’s a service many Canadians can try as the pace of layoffs skyrockets in the face of an economic crisis, Hamlin says.

“We believe in access to justice for people, and wrongful dismissal is one avenue that affects many Canadians at some point,” he says. “Even people who might be worried about being laid off could use our calculator service to get an idea of their entitlement.”

More than half a million Canadians lose their jobs every year on average, according to Statistics Canada. But 2009 has been different so far – 273,000 jobs were lost in the first three months alone.

Since October 2008, there are 454,000 less full time jobs in Canada. June’s unemployment rate was 8.6 per cent nationwide, an 11-year high.

But negotiating for severance pay isn’t easily accomplished by a layman, says Howard Levitt, counsel with Lang Michener LLP and author of The Law of Dismissal in Canada. Even armed with the knowledge of other court cases and with an articulate letter in hand, fired workers who go it alone are often not taken seriously by employers.

“It’s not because of knowledge, it’s the lack of a credible threat behind them,” he says. “The fact they’re using a lawyer probably means they’re likely to sue if you don’t talk turkey.”

The site’s calculator compares an individual’s scenario to a database of more than 2,000 employment court cases in Canada that are documented online and in print. After giving details such as your province, your age, the amount of time worked with the employer, and your type of job, you’re given a list of similar cases and shown the range of severance packages received.

About 100 new court cases will be added to the database every two months, Hamlin says. The expansion of the database will help make it more accurate.

“We’ve built wizards to make it easy for people to figure it out,” he says. “Based on your job title, it will make recommendations about your occupation category.”

Former community newspaper journalist Megan Harrison lost her job with the Cornwall Standard Freeholder after 11 months of work. When revenue at the newspaper dipped, she was let go with two weeks of pay as a severance package.

“I hadn’t really expected much more than that. I’d been there less than a year and the employee benefits were really sub-par,” she says. “The fact that I got something was a bonus.”

But putting Harrison’s details into FiredWithoutCause.com’s severance calculator reveal she could have got more out of the employer. Four similar cases were revealed, with an average of two months’ severance pay being received. Harrison isn’t irked by the results.

“I was lucky enough to find another job afterwards that was much better paying,” she says. “But if I’d been unemployed for six months ofter being laid off… I probably would’ve been peeved.”

Levitt questions the accuracy of the calculator. His book outlines 130 separate factors that affect severance pay, and this database compares about four or five variables.

“It sounds like an extra tool to find out whether it’s worth seeing a lawyer or not,” he says. “That’s assuming it’s reasonably accurate and the cases really reflect something similar to your own case.”

In a beta-testing period run since January, several people have used the tool to help them decide whether to hire a lawyer or not, Hamlin says. One IT worker in Alberta was given two weeks’ pay and the calculator indicated he was entitled to two months, for instance. The worker decided to pursue it with a lawyer. Another user found that their severance package was low, but was fair enough to not pursue legally.

“The most routine thing is just people seeking information to know if they had a fair settlement,” he says. “Usually they have no idea.”

The site is even considering a referral service for employment lawyers in the future, Hamlin adds.

The $40 fee to use the calculator was a bit high, Harrison says. She’d be willing to pay about $20.

“You’d just been laid off, so you’re watching what you spend,” she says.

The prices were chosen as an affordable alternative to a legal fee, Hamlin says. It is about four or five per cent the rate someone would typically pay for a lawyer.

Both the IT veteran and his entrepreneurial partner were motivated to start the site after being laid off several times themselves. Hamlin has lost his job on several occasions: twice when U.S. companies acquired his employer, and another time when a dot-com company crashed along with the rest of the bubble.

The goal is to see 1,000 paying users on the service over the first six months, Hamlin says.

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