A recently published article in NJ.com tells us something that we already know: As businesses begin to reopen in our state, many employees are being called back to work. The article also shares some more sinister news — that many employers are asking employees to sign liability waivers that protect employers from legal responsibility in the event that an employee gets sick on the job.
Are such waivers legal, and can employees be forced to sign them?
Workers’ Compensation and Employee Rights
Under the law in New Jersey, most employees are entitled to workers’ compensation insurance, which pays for medical expenses and a portion of lost wages if a worker is injured on the job or suffers an occupational illness that they would not have contracted but for their workplace activity. As tempting as it may be for employers to ask employees to waive their right to this protection, asking an employee to waive the right to workers’ compensation is not only unethical, but such a waiver likely would not hold up in court.
Proving that Coronavirus was Contracted at Work is Difficult
While an employer may have no legal grounds to ask an employee to sign a waiver, employers are not likely to be held liable for an employee’s illness stemming from the coronavirus. According to a law professor quoted in the article, it would be next to impossible for an employee to prove that they contracted the disease at work rather than via their participation in another activity, such as picking their kids up from school or going to the grocery store. In order to successfully secure workers’ compensation benefits, an employee must be able to prove that they would not have developed COVID-19 but for their workplace activities/the nature of their work.
However, while it may currently be difficult for workers who contract the virus at work to prove the connection between their job and the disease, a bill that is pending in the state legislature may change that. The bill, S2380, would remove the requirement that workers prove that they contracted the virus at work; the legislation would apply to those workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic, and would be retroactive to March 9.
Get Help if Your Rights in the Workplace are Being Breached
If you are a worker who has been asked to waive your right to compensation or who has contracted the coronavirus at work (or both), it is important that you understand your legal rights. In addition to workers’ compensation benefits, there may be other protections that you are entitled to under the law. .