What happens if a group of just-dismissed hourly wage employees who barely speak English sign a broad-ranging release preventing them from taking further legal action? Does it matter that their former employer paid them next to nothing to sign that release or that the employees feared they would get nothing at all if they refused? According to a recent human rights decision that amazes even me, the answer is that it does not matter at all.
Just fired from their jobs as general labourers at Global Egg Corporation, a group of 10 Spanish-speaking former employees found themselves in a pickle.Presented with a severance agreement that they claimed not to understand, they were given one week to sign the documents in exchange for an extra one or two weeks’ pay, or they could refuse, in which case they thought they would not receive anything at all.
The group took the documents to the Centre for Spanish Speaking People and spoke with two lawyers and an interpreter who explained the requirements of severance and gave them advice about the consequences of refusing to sign the agreement.
After the meeting, everyone signed the documents, still fearful that they would not receive any money if they refused to sign. According to one of the members of the group who testified at the recent hearing, she did not want to sign, but felt that she had no choice since she “needed the money.” Later on, however, believing the deal they received was discriminatory and unfair, the group complained to the Human Rights Tribunal, arguing that it should be set aside.
In a surprising human rights decision, the tribunal dismissed the claims at a preliminary hearing because of the agreements that were signed. Although the group believed they would receive nothing unless they signed their names, it was not because of anything their former employer said. The group received advice from lawyers and, however ill-advised, decided to take the deal.
Although this “deal” was unfortunate and paid them less than they would have otherwise received, even a human rights tribunal was not prepared to intervene. This result can be avoided by observing two simple rules:
- Termination packages are negotiable. Seek specialized legal advice before signing your name.
- Ask for more time or the opportunity to meet with a lawyer if the terms of an offer or release are unclear.
Daniel A. Lublin is an employment lawyer with Whitten & Lublin
LLP. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on