Suffering a workplace injury that’s significant enough to lead to the loss of your job can be very stressful for the average worker. The majority of workers in the United States currently live from paycheck to paycheck, and therefore rely on their income to cover even basic monthly expenses. For workers with families, the urgency to cover living expenses can be even greater.
As a result, many workers can feel conflicted about whether to report accidents suffered on the job and how to respond to the offer of a severance package from an employer.
If you’re offered severance pay for injury-related job loss, you may be asking yourself, should I take the severance pay my employer offers me? Will accepting severance pay affect my ability to file for wrongful termination? And perhaps most importantly: what are my legal options?
Understanding your rights as an employee can offer significant use if you find yourself in a situation where you are forced to consider your legal options. The best way to get comprehensive information on your legal rights in the event of a workplace injury is to speak to a skilled employment law attorney.
What Is Severance Pay?
Severance pay refers to a specified amount of money or benefits offered by an employer to compensate employees who lose their jobs.
While severance pay can sometimes be offered as a result of a worker who suffers a major injury on the job, workers may also be offered severance pay in the event of job loss due to another reason, such as large-scale company layoffs.
In select states, severance pay is a requirement for employers who conduct large-scale payoffs. However, most employers aren’t required to offer any type of severance and may fire employees for any reason at any time—provided they aren’t violating discrimination laws. In the latter situation, workers are likely to receive only their final paycheck before their termination.
Offering severance packages—which can include monetary compensation, benefits, or outplacement services—can also be a beneficial option for employers. Offering severance pay to employees can serve as a tool to prevent employees from filing a legal claim for wrongful termination.
Signing A Release To Receive Severance Pay
In most cases, employees who are offered severance packages for injury-related termination are required to sign a severance agreement before receiving their compensation.
Severance agreements typically contain what is known as a waiver, or release, which states that employees who sign are legally barred from filing a claim or lawsuit against their employer for job termination.
Additional components that may be found in a severance agreement include:
- a clearly defined payout amount
- description of any additional benefits included in your severance package
- non-disparagement clause
- non-admission liability clause stating that your employer cannot be construed as admitting liability by presenting you with a severance package
- governing law (a statement that the agreement shall be governed in accordance with local or state laws)
Signing a release and thereby giving up the right to file a claim is a concern many workers struggle with, as the temptation to take an employer payout can be difficult to weigh against the potential costs. This is an understandable struggle.
Many workers rely on their income to take care of themselves and their families. Being cut off from this income can be devastating, and taking an employer’s severance package can seem like the most reasonable choice to make.
Yet there are several important drawbacks to consider in the event that your severance agreement does require you to sign away your right to file for worker’s compensation.
What Are The Potential Drawbacks Of Signing A Severance Release?
The main drawback to signing a severance release is how it may affect your ability to file a claim for wrongful termination and worker’s compensation.
Within most of these agreements, signing a severance release affirms that you agree not to sue or file a claim against your employer. Not all severance packages require employees to sign a release in order to receive compensation. This requirement is determined by your employer.
If you are able to receive your severance without signing a release, then you retain the option to seek further legal recourse. Reasons why you may wish to do this could include being unhappy with your severance package or to file a claim that exposes unsafe working conditions that directly caused your workplace injury.
Lastly, another factor to consider is whether the one-time payout offered by your employer is enough to offset the loss of your right to seek legal recourse.
There are no federal, state, or local standard payouts that employers are required to honor when drawing up the details of a severance package. As a result, there’s a chance your payout could be very little in comparison to what you could receive in worker’s compensation.
Again, for some people, any amount of money offered upon losing a job may feel like a life-line. However, even in such a case, it may be helpful to first seek the consultation of a lawyer before making this weighty decision.
Initial consultations are often offered free of charge, with additional terms to be decided only after a lawyer has discussed and analyzed the basic details of your case.
Am I Required To Accept Severance Pay?
Employees who are offered a severance package following a workplace injury are under no obligation to accept their severance or sign a waiver of release. Accepting your employer’s offer of severance is entirely voluntary.
Any severance agreement that is signed involuntarily or through the coercion of your employer is unlikely to be upheld in court. If you feel as though you’re being pressured by your employer to accept your severance, and have evidence to prove as much, the agreement may not be interpreted to be valid by a court.
Further, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against any employee who files a worker’s compensation claim, or to offer any sort of incentive for agreeing not to file a claim. Workplace harassment is a serious concern in the court of law, particularly coming from an employer.
What Happens If I Don’t Sign A Release Or Accept Severance Pay?
If you refuse to sign a waiver of release, your employer will likely refuse to give you the offered severance. This is important to understand.
Choosing not to accept severance pay may open the door for you to pursue further legal recourse against your employer. This could include filing a worker’s compensation claim or following up with a lawsuit if the claim is not resolved.
Employee Rights Following A Layoff Or Termination
Understand that if you are laid off following a serious injury on the job, under federal employment laws, you as an employee have protections against:
- wrongful termination
- employer retaliation
- coercion to sign a release or accept severance
Your employee rights also grant you entitlements to:
- a safe and healthy workplace
- pursue legal recourse against your employer for worker’s compensation
- seek medical treatment for your injury
- return to your job, upon securing a return-to-work release from a doctor
- appeal any decision made by your employer, their insurance company, or the worker’s compensation court that you do not agree with
Worker’s compensation following a workplace injury may be available in the form of a monetary settlement or benefits.
In the case that you file against unsafe working conditions that directly caused your accident (e.g. faulty equipment, toxic substances in the workplace), you may also be eligible to receive punitive damages.
If these conditions were caused by a third party, however, your legal recourse will likely need to be filed as a civil lawsuit separate from a worker’s compensation claim.
Filing For Wrongful Termination
The first step you should take in order to get more information about filing a wrongful termination claim is to speak with your employer’s human resources department. Wrongful termination laws vary from state to state and may be better explained by someone with formal knowledge of your local laws.
If speaking to your employer’s HR department does not resolve your issue, then your best course of action is to consult an employment attorney. An attorney can provide you with efficient legal support throughout the filing process from start to finish.
Filing a wrongful termination claim against an employer can be intimidating. Getting guidance from an attorney who is experienced in these matters can help.
Contact Us For Help Filing An Employee Rights Claim
If you’re concerned about signing a severance agreement offered by your employer following a workplace injury, seeking guidance from an employment attorney may be your best option.
At Florin|Roebig, we offer individuals a free case evaluation with one of our seasoned attorneys, who can discuss and analyze the details of your employee rights case. Don’t wait to learn what your case may be worth.
Call us today or contact us through our online form to schedule a free consultation with one of our expert attorneys.
- CNBC — Shutdown highlights that 4 in 5 US workers live paycheck to paycheck
- USA.Gov — Labor Laws and Issues
- U.S. Department of Labor: Worker.Gov — Workplace Injury