What Is Severance Pay?

Severance pay is the compensation and/or benefits an employer provides to an employee after employment is over. Severance packages may include extended benefits such as health insurance and outplacement assistance to help an employee secure a new position.

Employers offer packages to employees who are laid off, whose jobs are eliminated because of downsizing, or who retire. Some employees who resign or are fired may also receive a severance package.

Severance pay can be a goodwill gesture on the part of the employer and can provide the employee with a buffer between working and unemployment.

Understanding Severance Pay

Businesses are not required to pay severance, although most offer packages on a case-by-case basis and as dictated by employment contracts.

Severance pay is offered to employees in certain circumstances after their employment ends. The amount an employee receives depends on how long he or she was with the employer. Most employers have policies in their employee handbook that outline how they handle severance pay.

Packages offered by employers usually come in a lump sum and is taxable. They generally include an employee's regular pay along with some of all of the following:

  • Extra pay based on months or years of employment
  • Compensation for unused, accrued vacation time, sick days, and/or holiday pay
  • Medical and dental benefits, and life insurance
  • Retirement accounts and stock options

When businesses fail to offer severance packages, it can upset staff and create negative public relations. In 2018, Sears announced it planned to lay off hourly employees without giving them any severance pay. The company, which was restructuring in bankruptcy, also said it planned to pay its executives millions in annual bonuses, which drew significant criticism from employees and the general public.

Special Considerations

Do Businesses Have to Offer Severance Pay?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there is no law that requires employers to provide severance pay. However, if the employee's contract stipulates he receives severance pay upon dismissal or if the employee handbook promises severance pay, the company is legally obligated to follow through with those pledges. Additionally, if the company makes a verbal promise to provide an employee with severance pay, it must also uphold that agreement.

Regardless of whether a company offers severance pay, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mandates an employer must pay terminated employees through their last day of work, and the employer must also pay any accrued vacation time to employees.

Key Takeaways

  • Severance pay is any form of compensation paid by an employer to an employee after employment is over.
  • Employers are not legally required to pay severance.
  • Severance may include health insurance and accrued vacation.

Severance and Unemployment Benefits

Severance pay can affect unemployment compensation in two ways. If the employer pays the employee severance fee in a lump sum, the employee can apply for unemployment insurance right away as he is no longer on the company's payroll.

However, in some cases, companies issue severance pay over a period of several months. Through that process, the employee is still technically on the payroll, even if he does not go to work. This means he cannot apply for unemployment. Similarly, if an employee has unused vacation time, he is on the payroll as he uses it.

[Important: The laws about unemployment and severance pay vary by state, so it's important to check with the local employment office about when to apply for unemployment benefits.]

In other cases, severance pay affects unemployment compensation because of the contracts many people sign when they accept severance pay. In exchange for offering severance packages, some companies make their employees sign statements saying they voluntarily resigned from their posts. These agreements prohibit the employee from claiming unemployment insurance, as it is reserved for people who are dismissed from their jobs involuntarily.