Message for Employees: As COVID-19 surges, don’t sign away workplace rights

AUSTIN – In June 2020, with the summer crowds surging on the Texas coast, the La Copa Inn on South Padre Island asked its employees to waive their rights to any risk stemming from the coronavirus and COVID-19.

Alfonso C. Garcia, a front desk clerk at La Copa, refused to sign the waiver, in part because some employees at the coastal hotel had already contracted the coronavirus, according to a Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) ruling. La Copa Inn fired him and fought his claim for unemployment benefits.

Garcia, however, won an appeal with the Texas Workforce Commission. Last month, a hearing officer ruled that La Copa Inn fired him for “refusing to waive his valuable workplace rights” and said Garcia filed a valid claim for unemployment benefits. Garcia’s decision to reject the waiver was not considered “misconduct,” according to the Dec. 17, 2020, ruling.

“The law is clear in Texas: employers can’t ask workers to sign away their right to bring lawsuits against reckless employers who put them at risk of contracting COVID-19,” said TRLA attorney Chris Benoit, who represented Garcia. “If a worker is forced to sign a waiver of liability, this case lets them know they can stand up to their employer.”

La Copa Inn asked its employees to sign the waiver on June 20. At the time, vacation destinations on the Texas coast were attracting significant numbers of maskless partygoers, a trend that continued into the summer months.

“People came in droves to our region in May and June despite the risk of COVID-19,” Garcia said. “I was disturbed that we were forced to deal with unsafe conditions and then asked to waive liability for any injuries that could result. I don’t think that is fair to me or any of my co-workers – we had no choice but to work.”

The waiver presented to Garcia and other La Copa Inn workers was broadly written to excuse the company from all workplace liability.

According to the TWC hearing officer, “not only did the document require the employees to assume the risks associated with the virus, but the agreement required the employees to assume all the risks for any injury, disability, death, illness, damage, loss, claim, liability, or expense of any kind in connection with their attendance at the workplace.”

TRLA’s Benoit said that workplace liability waivers are not enforceable in Texas, no matter how broadly or narrowly they are written.

If an employer retaliates against a worker for refusing to sign a liability waiver, the employee may have the right to reinstatement, lost pay, and other remedies in addition to unemployment benefits.

The deadlines for enforcing these rights are short. For more information, call TRLA to apply for free and confidential legal advice, hotline is open from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (CST) Monday – Friday: (888) 988-999