Requiring Employees to Sign Waivers Limits Massachusetts Workers Rights
Under both federal and Massachusetts labor rules and regulations, employees have the right to sue their employers for violations of the law including hourly wage disputes, discrimination, sexual harassment and any other such workplace actions that are legally prohibited.
Employees cannot sue on a whim or because they have their feelings hurt. There must be specific violations of the law for which they can provide evidence. It is not an easy thing to do and certain procedures must be followed. For example, employees must file a claim with the office of the Attorney General before they can sue their employer. The claim must be attached to their complaint they file with the court or their lawsuit will be dismissed.
There are time limits on filing claims and complaints that must be strictly followed. Although the process is complicated, if employees win their disputes in a court of law, they are entitled to three times the damages they would ordinarily receive.
There is loophole in the law that allows employers to protect themselves from employee lawsuits: As a condition of employment, employers are requiring employees to sign a waiver of their right to sue and agree to submit any dispute to arbitration.
Waivers and Arbitration: Employees Beware
Waivers and consent to arbitration are often presented to employees as a good thing that is more cost-effective than litigation for both parties. They are told that arbitration will provide a quicker resolution to the dispute. But, when a dispute arises, employees often find they have agreed to:
- Shortening the time in which they have to file a claim.
- Arbitration taking place at the company headquarters in another state.
- Keeping secret all aspects of the litigation.
- Not participate in any class action lawsuit against the employer.
According to the president of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association, “It’s a huge problem. It gives [companies] a legal loophole where they can make up their own rules.” The general counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees and adds, that the procedural hurdles are “so insurmountable that folks are deterred from exercising their rights.” He also notes that the privacy of the arbitration process does not “shine the sunshine on unlawful practices.” If the violations are kept secret, there is no incentive for the companies to change their practices.
In the past, waivers were primarily used for those in executive positions. The trend now is to have all workers sign the waivers. Low-wage workers are the most vulnerable. They need the job and sign away their legal rights when the waivers are presented as a condition of employment.
When a dispute arises over the validity of a waiver, contract principles apply. If the court determines that the waiver was knowingly and voluntary signed, it will be upheld. There are some exceptions and some rights that cannot be waived. If employees question the validity of the waiver they signed, an attorney will review the document and advise employees about the intricacies of the law and assist them in deciding how to proceed.
Massachusetts Legislature is Working to Plug the Loophole
Massachusetts lawmakers are concerned about the problem and trying to fix it. Senate Bill 958, titled “An act relative to defense against abusive waivers” is currently pending. It was approved by the Labor and Workforce Development committee and, if passed, will make it illegal for a company to require employees to sign waivers and agree to arbitration as a condition of employment. The bill specifically states: “A provision in any contract waiving any substantive or procedural right or remedy relating to a claim of discrimination, non-payment of wages or benefits, retaliation, harassment or violation of public policy in employment shall be deemed unconscionable, void and unenforceable, with respect to any such claim arising after the waiver is made…”
Contact an Experienced Attorney Today
If you believe you signed a waiver and agreement to arbitration that is unconscionable and that you should be allowed to sue your employer, contact Attorney Sheehan for a free consulation.
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