As lawsuits against employers continue rising amid the coronavirus pandemic, some businesses are requiring workers to sign waivers absolving them of liability and responsibility should they contract the virus.
Eight percent of executives surveyed by law firm Blank Rome said they would require that their workers sign waivers of liability before returning to the workplace.
While employers are trying to protect themselves from a liability that didn’t even exist a year ago, some human resources legal experts have expressed concerns that they may not be necessary ― and may be unenforceable.
The moves come as employers are wrestling with numerous risks that the pandemic has wrought, and with the U.S. Senate having proposed legislation that would limit the liability of employers for workers who become sick during the pandemic. A number of states have also enacted laws or emergency regulations that make it harder for employees to sue employers for negligence over COVID-19.
COVID-19-spurred employee lawsuits have mostly centered on employers not providing the proper protections for workers, discrimination or for being laid off for refusing to come to work.
Legal experts caution that employers cannot require workers to waive rights they may have, such as access to workers’ compensation benefits or the right to file a complaint with OSHA.
They also say that some employers may consider waivers as a green light to not take precautions against COVID-19, but in such cases the waivers would likely not be legal.
If a worker claims they caught COVID-19 at work and the facts back that up, they would likely have access to workers’ compensation benefits (some states even require it). But if the employer was negligent, the employee could have further legal avenues to pursue besides workers’ compensation, rights that cannot legally be waived, lawyers say.
So even if an employee were to sign a document waiving their right to file a complaint if they feel their employer is being negligent, they may still have recourse.
Requiring workers to sign waivers could present a number of legal issues, according to the law website nolo.com, including:
- Courts in some states are reluctant to enforce liability waivers in the workplace because of the superior bargaining power of employers over their staff.
- Workplace morale could suffer if your employees think you are placing your own economic interests above workplace safety.
- Any waiver employees sign would not protect your firm from lawsuits filed by their families should they contract COVID-19 if staff are infected at work.
- A waiver might be unnecessary in states that have passed laws granting immunity to employers for claims made by workers infected with the virus.
While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company’s liability may have grounds to challenge their employer, some liability lawyers say that employers instead of a waiver can ask their staff to sign a social contract that requires:
- The employer to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at work, and
- The workers to comply with their employer’s requirements on mandates on wearing masks, social distancing and not coming to work if they have symptoms or of they think they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
This type of agreement won’t protect an employer from a lawsuit, but it does spell out that they are following authorities’ recommendation for protecting employees.
While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company’s liability could have grounds to sue, those who sign this type of acknowledgement of new workplace rules and government guidance are less likely to be successful if they are fired for not signing. This is because the acknowledgement is not forcing them to give up any of their rights and is rather for their and their co-workers’ protection.
These social contracts also would provide workers with a list of their responsibilities when working during the COVID-19 pandemic, and outline what their employer is doing to protect them.
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