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Employment Considerations in the Sale of a Business

The liabilities of vendor and purchaser for employee entitlements upon termination can become a major issue in negotiating the sale of a business.

Section 64 governs statutory severance pay, which is payable only to an employee severed without cause, as defined, who has five or more years’ service and is either employed by an employer which has a payroll of $2.5 million or more or where there is a permanent discontinuance of all or part of the employer’s business at an establishment which results in 50 or more employees having their employment terminated within a six month period. Statutory severance pay is equal to one-week per completed and partial year of service, up to a maximum of 26 weeks.

Share Purchase Agreement

There is no termination of employment upon the sale of shares of a company.

Asset Purchase Agreement

Where a purchaser expressly recognizes past service in its new employment contract with the employee, no issue arises. An employer may make the choice to recognize past service in consideration for the valuable skills and experience it is receiving with a long-service employee. In the case of such an explicit recognition by the purchaser, the vendor would normally have no further liability at common law.

A purchaser can avoid liability for the employees’ prior service by requiring the vendor to provide common law reasonable notice of termination or pay in lieu thereof before the purchaser hires the employees.  Therefore, a purchaser wishing to try to insulate itself from employee termination liabilities should include a provision in the purchase and sale agreement requiring the vendor to provide reasonable notice of termination at common law, as well as require the vendor to indemnify it for any future termination payments for those employees, or at least for that portion of future termination payments attributable to the employees’ pre-sale service. Of course, if the purchaser declines to offer employment to the employees of the vendor, the vendor remains liable to the employees for common law reasonable notice.

Negotiating Business Purchase and Sale

As legal counsel for a purchaser, it is important to ensure that the vendor is contractually obliged to disclose as much information as possible about the employment aspects of the business and the age, tenure, compensation terms and character of employment of the employees. Potential common law and statutory employment liabilities must be considered in full and financially accounted for, through payment and/or indemnities, in any purchase and sale negotiation by both parties.

Severance Pay on the Purchase and Sale of a Business

Severance pay obligations to employees can be a substantial yet often overlooked obligation in the context of a purchase and sale of a business. Whether an asset sale or share sale, the vendor and purchaser must address severance pay issues before consummating a transaction. In this post, we will discuss some of the common structures that are employed in business transactions.

The manner of sale has an impact on where the obligations for severance pay reside. As such, we will start by assessing share sales vs. asset sales.

Share Transaction

When the shares of a company are sold, employees of the vendor are not terminated from their employment. The identity of the corporation does not change with the sale of shares; as such, the rights and obligations of the employer do not change unless the share purchase agreement specifically addresses these issues.

If the purchaser does not wish to take on the employees of the vendor, it must ensure in the share purchase agreement that the vendor is obligated to terminate the employment of those employees prior to sale and pay any required severance obligations. This will release the purchaser from any obligation to pay severance to employees of the company that they do not wish to keep on.

Asset Transaction

In the context of some or all of the assets of a corporation, other issues may arise. The contract of employment cannot be assigned from one employer to another. As such, upon the sale of a business, where the employment of the employee is not continued with the vendor, the contract of employment must be terminated and an employee can enter into a new contract with the purchaser. In this case, the employee relinquishes recognition of tenure or seniority with the previous employer.

If the employee declines an offer from the purchaser, they are deemed to have failed to mitigate their damages, negating a wrongful dismissal claim.

Recognizing Past Service

Where a purchaser in an asset transaction expressly recognizes the past service of the employee in its new employment contract, no issue arises. If the purchaser recognizes such service, the vendor would have no further liability.

Courts now generally presume that an employee will be credited for past service with the former employer for the purposes of calculating reasonable notice of termination unless an employment contract specifically indicates to the contrary.

How Do Purchasers Avoid Liability?

A purchaser can avoid liability for employees’ prior service and severance obligations by requiring the vendor to provide notice of termination before the purchaser hires the employees. In an agreement of purchase and sale, the purchaser should include an indemnification clause for any future termination payment for the employees, or the portion attributable to their pre-sale service.

In addition, the purchaser can advise the employee in a contract of employment that their years of service with the vendor will not be recognized.

A number of complex issues arise in the context of a purchase and sale of business specifically with respect to severance pay obligations to employees. If these matters are not sufficiently addressed, a business purchaser can be found liable for substantial obligations that were not accounted for at the time of purchase, thereby making the transaction uneconomical. Accordingly, it is important that severance pay issues are addressed prior to entering into a business purchase and sale.