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Legacy of Chicago sit-in: empowering laid-off workers

Six-day factory occupation ends after employees gain $1.75 million severance package.

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For some 200 workers who staged a six-day sit-in at their shuttered Chicago plant in outrage over their abrupt layoffs, the protest paid off.

Their stand – which ended Wednesday after netting each fired employee about $7,000 in severance benefits – may also serve as an example for other Americans who face losing their jobs in an economy that seems to be shrinking by the minute.

The takeaway: Know your rights – and go to the mat for them.

"We're at a real malleable moment" in the economy, says Sean Safford, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "This case is so interesting, it's going to be a small piece of how we think of moving forward."

Legal protections for laid-off workers are uneven, depending on the kind of work, whether a worker is hourly or salaried, the size of the employer, and other variables. Moreover, when companies close abruptly and enter bankruptcy, workers seeking back pay are in a long line of creditors – and often they're not at the front of the line.

In the case of some 240 laid-off workers at a manufacturing plant on Chicago's North Side, federal law required a 60-day notice that the facility was closing. Their employer, Republic Windows & Doors, gave three days, citing an emergency in which it had exhausted its line of credit and was unable to obtain more financing to stay open.

This particular law, the 1988 US Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, is intended to give workers a safety cushion to allow them time for a job hunt and an opportunity to take advantage of federally funded job programs. It applies to companies with more than 100 full-time employees that are closing a plant or doing a mass layoff.

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