When you get laid off, it’s not uncommon for an employer to ask you to sign a severance agreement.  They do it for many reasons.  The first is that it creates some good will so hopefully you don’t do anything bad toward the company on your way out.  The second is that for the remaining employees, it shows that the company isn’t run by a bunch of no-good meanies, even if they let you go.

But the biggest reason that a company will do it is because they want to close the books on their relationship with you.  When you sign a severance, they give you some money and in return you waive your right to sue them for anything that might have happened while working there.  The key word in that sentence is sue.

In Illinois, a workers’ compensation claim is not a lawsuit.  It’s a claim for benefits.  And beyond that, you can’t waive away your rights to bring a work comp case.  The only way you lose your rights is by waiting to long to file your case or if you settle or go to trial at the Workers’ Compensation Commission.

So if you are given a severance that says you agree that you don’t have a work comp case or that you’ll never bring one against them, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.  And while I wouldn’t encourage you to sign such a document, again, you can’t waive away those rights.

This came up recently from an e-mailer to my office.  The surprising thing was that his employer was a huge company and they were not only asking him to agree to waive his rights, but also wanted him to agree that if he ever did bring a workers’ compensation claim they could sue him to pay for their attorney fees.

That clause is completely unenforceable in my opinion and also ridiculous.  It’s surprising that such a big employer would try to get away with it because they surely know better, but when money is involved, people do strange things.

No matter who you are, if offered a severance you are also entitled to have a lawyer review that document and you certainly should as soon as it is presented to you.  If you don’t and later on you are not happy about it or claim that you weren’t aware of all of your rights, it will be too late.

Written by Michael Helfand