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Pink slip

John Seelmeyer

A slowing economy is bringing a windfall of business to northern Nevada lawyers who advise employers on how to handle layoffs.

And attorneys expect the busy times to continue as they brace for complaints of discrimination to be filed against employers by laid-off workers.

Ann Morgan, a stockholder in the Jones Vargas law firm in Reno who focuses on employment law, says she’s been busy in recent weeks meeting with employers who plan to lay off individuals or small numbers of workers to meet the demands of a slowing economy.

So far, she says, few employers are developing plans for mass layoffs or plant closures.

“But,” Morgan adds, “there has been a lot of discussion.”

Miranda Du, a partner at McDonald Carson Wilson LLP in Reno and chair of the firm’s employment and labor law group, says layoffs that are based on seniority are fairly straightforward.

But many employers, she says, hope to focus their staff reductions on low-performing workers, boosting productivity as they reduce head count. That creates work for attorneys who need to determine if the staff cuts can be defended against claims of discrimination.

So far, attorneys say they haven’t seen a spike in discrimination claims as layoffs ripple through the economy. But it may be early.

Workers usually have six months to file an employment discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commis-sion, says Morgan, and some employees who lost their jobs when the recession settled in early this year still may be weighing their options.

As those deadlines approach, employers are likely to receive an increased number of discrimination complaints, and their attorneys are more likely to get busy defending them.

Some employees already may be using discrimination claims as a form of defense, says Karyn Taylor, a shareholder in Reno with the law firm of Littler Mendelson P.C.

Knowing that they are in danger of losing their jobs, workers file discrimination claims in the knowledge that they are protected until the claim is resolved, Taylor says.

Littler Mendelson clients in Nevada already are seeing a modest uptick in the number of complaints that allege discrimination on the basis of an employee’s disability.

Du says a growing number of employers understand the need to handle layoffs carefully and are aware of the risks of a poorly considered reduction in their staffs.

“They are proactive,” she says.

And although early consultation adds to the workload of employment attorneys, they say planning is much easier than defense of a wrongful termination suit.

“Being able to give advice on the front end rather than on the back end is the greatest service we can provide,” Morgan says. “This is what we do.”