Getting hurt at work and getting fired are two of the most stressful occurrences for an employee. Oftentimes, these stressors are combined when an injured worker receives a severance agreement. This article provides five questions an injured worker who gets a severance agreement should ask:
Does signing a severance agreement settle your workers’ compensation claim? Connecticut courts recently ruled that a severance agreement does not release a workers compensation claim. However, Florida courts have held the opposite. My state of Nebraska generally does not allow workers’ comp claims to be released in severance agreements. Consult with a lawyer in your state to get a good answer. Most lawyers who do workers’ compensation work on a contingent fee basis are generally happy to spend a reasonable amount of time answering questions from injured workers faced with a severance agreement. Don’t let fear of cost deter you from contacting a lawyer.
What does your state’s workers’ compensation act cover? Some workers’ compensation statutes, like Ohio and Texas, also cover retaliatory discharge cases. My state of Nebraska makes wrongful discharge a separate civil claim. The consequence of that for injured workers in Nebraska and other states with so-called “common law” retaliatory discharge causes of action: a severance agreement would close out that case along with most other claims under fair employment statutes like the ADA, FMLA and Title VII. If you are in a state where retaliatory discharge is covered under your workers’ comp statute, then that case may not be released in a severance agreement in a comp claim if your state doesn’t allow comp claims to be settled in severance agreements.
What are your chances for receiving unemployment benefits? Finding out your chances of receiving unemployment is critical – again, especially if you are forced to choose between severance and workers’ compensation. The key questions to ask for eligibility for unemployment are 1) whether you earned enough wages to be covered 2) whether you quit without good cause or were fired for misconduct and 3) whether you are able and available for work. Of course, if you have an ongoing workers’ compensation claim, the fourth question is how receiving unemployment would affect your workers’ compensation claim. If you chose to negotiate your severance agreement, either by yourself or with a lawyer, try to include a provision where the employer chooses not to oppose your application for unemployment benefits.
Do you get benefits like vacation pay, even if you don’t sign a severance agreement? In some states, including my state of Nebraska, an employee should receive vacation pay or paid time off regardless of whether they sign a severance agreement or not. Again, if you live in a state where an employer can release a workers’ compensation claim through a severance agreement, your eligibility for vacation pay along with unemployment benefits should help you decide whether it make sense for you economically to pursue your workers’ compensation claim if you have to pick between severance and workers’ compensation. This also holds true for severance agreements in general if you an employer is asking to you to release a strong fair-employment claim for a low-ball severance amount.
Did you contact a lawyer who is knowledgeable about workers’ compensation? This is a critical period and critical especially if you live in a state where comp claims can be released by severance agreements. An experienced workers’ comp lawyer can value your comp claim. Some ways to evaluate whether a workers’ compensation lawyer is knowledge is to check whether they are a member of the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG). Another is to see if you can search them on your state’s workers’ compensation court website or through free legal research services like FindLaw and Google Scholar. A knowledgeable workers’ compensation lawyer in your state should also be able questions 1-4.
With football season upon us, I would like to use football to explain some common situations that employees face.
I get a lot of calls from white-collar professionals who have long careers with a company but then are laid off a few months after a new boss is hired. This happens a lot in football when a general manager/athletic director replaces a head coach and the head coach fires the previous coach’s assistant coaches. White-collar employees in middle-management positions are essentially the equivalents of assistant coaches in football. In the world of football, it is assumed that a new head coach can bring in his new assistants. The same assumption holds true in the business world.
Assistant coaches are oftentimes “bought out” of their employment contracts. Sometimes white-collar professionals have employment contracts, but more often than not they do not. Sometimes professionals are offered severance agreements, but unless there is an employment contract, that severance is not a buyout. Employers are also under no obligation to offer severance. If severance is offered, that doesn’t necessarily mean that an employer wrongfully terminated the employee.
Of course, no employee can be terminated because of age, disability, sex, race, nationality, or in retaliation for engaging in a protected activity like filing for workers’ compensation or filing with OSHA. But even if there is some appearance of wrongful motivation on behalf of the employer, the employer can still defeat a potential lawsuit if they have a legitimate business reason for terminating the employee. Going back to a football analogy, if the new head coach wants to switch an offensive or defensive scheme, they have the right to hire the person they choose. The fact the new hire might be less effective than the old hire is not a decision that a court will second guess in a wrongful termination. Sure, if there is something else wrongful going on, it is something a court or a jury could consider, but in a case where there is a recent change in management, employees will have difficult time overcoming the assumption that the new boss just wants to “put in their team.”
Cooperating with the unemployment claims adjudicator can help you get benefits.
Answer your phone.
This is the advice a friend of mine who works as an unemployment claims adjudicator would give to people filing unemployment. Oftentimes people are denied unemployment benefits they earned through their employer because they neglect to cooperate in the initial investigation of their claim. An adjudicator is assigned to determine eligibility for unemployment benefits. In short, they talk to you and your employer about why you are no longer employed. If the adjudicator determines that your were fired for intentionally disregarding reasonable work-related expectations of your employeror that you quit without good cause,then you will be found not to be eligible for unemployment benefits. Of course, you can appeal that decision, but that will lead to a delay in you receiving benefits, and it might also mean finding a lawyer to represent you in the appeal hearing.
The problem someone creates for themselves when they don’t talk to the adjudicator is that the adjudicator will only hear the employer’s side of the story. If an employee has documents that would show they did not commit work-related misconduct or that they quit with good cause, they should give those to the adjudicator as well.
Unemployment is stressful. Failing to communicate with people who might be able to help you just makes matters worse for yourself and family.