Labor and Employment

Reduction-In-Force or Layoff: What Difference Does it Make?

Updated by Sachi Barreiro, Attorney, University of San Francisco School of Law
Learn the difference between a layoff and a reduction-in-force and what benefits you might receive.

Maybe it's happened, or about to happen, to you or someone you know. You hear words like reduction-in-force (RIF), layoff, or downsizing in the news, in an email, or at the water cooler. You’re immediately worried about your job. And you may wonder: Does it make any difference what it's called?

Difference Between a Layoff and an RIF

The end result of a layoff and a reduction-in-force is the same: you lose your job, usually for reasons out of your control. However, there are some small differences, including the possibility of being rehired in the future.

In the past, layoffs typically came with an expectation that the employee might be rehired, if more work became available or if the employer’s financial condition improved. A reduction-in-force, on the hand, did not come with such an expectation. An RIF usually meant that a certain job, or even an entire department, was being eliminated.

While this distinction still exists for some employers, other employers may treat layoffs and RIFs the same. In other words, whether it’s called a layoff or a reduction-in-force, it might mean that you’re out of a job permanently. But, it never hurts to ask your boss if there’s a possibility of being rehired in the future.

Legal Issues With Layoffs and RIFs

Unless you have an employment contract, you are most likely an at-will employee. This means that you can be fired at any time, for any reason that isn’t illegal. Likewise you have the freedom to quit at any time for any reason.

While layoffs and RIFs due to business reasons are perfectly legal, employers can get into trouble if they discriminate when carrying them out. Employers may not single out certain employees for layoff based on race, gender, age, religion, or another characteristic protected under federal or state antidiscrimination laws. (For more information, see our page on employment discrimination.)

For example, it is illegal for an employer to decide to lay off the oldest employees at the company. If you believe you were fired due to your age, or your membership in another protected class, consult with an employment lawyer right away.

Notice of Layoffs and RIFs

If you’re an at will employee, your employer usually isn’t required to give you any advance notice of your layoff. However, larger employers may need to give a certain amount of notice when conducting mass layoffs or plant closings. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which applies to employers with 100 or more employees, requires employers to give 60 days’ notice when a large number of employees will lose their jobs. (See Layoffs and the WARN Act for more information.)

Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment compensation benefits are meant to help you make ends meet until you find a new job. These benefits are available to employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. So if you were laid off or lost your job through an RIF, you will typically be eligible for benefits. (See Unemployment Compensation When You've Lost Your Job for more details on eligibility and amounts.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was recently laid off and my employer didn't pay me for all of the hours I actually worked in the last pay period. What can I do?
  • If my position becomes available in the future, does my employer have to hire me back?
  • Several of my coworkers and I think that we were targeted for a layoff because of our age. What kind of proof do we need for a discrimination claim?
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