Unemployment Eligibility and COVID/Coronavirus Concerns

We just got notice that the Pennsylvania Unemployment Office is resuming hearings for unemployment claim challenges. For the moment, all unemployment hearings will be conducted with all parties appearing by telephone. As is their standard practice, all unemployment hearings are audio recorded.

We’ve had several questions about unemployment eligibility in the past few weeks. The following information pertains to employees who do not have an employment contract and who are not union members. Contract employees and union members have a somewhat different approach. Pennsylvania is an “employment at will” state. That means that an employer can terminate you with or without cause so long as there is no discrimination involved. Pennsylvania also makes an employee eligible by default for unemployment benefits so long as they have a sufficient work history.

The primary way for an employee to lose their unemployment benefits is for them to have committed “willful misconduct”. Willful misconduct does not have a precise definition under the law. It includes numerous types of conduct, but to put it succinctly, an employee must intentionally or recklessly do something to hurt an employer’s interests.

Breaking an employer’s rules may or may not be willful misconduct. It depends on a number of factors including: whether the rule was a serious rule, whether the employee was notified of the rule, whether the employer uniformly enforced the rule and whether there was a reasonable explanation for breaking a rule.

Willful misconduct must be proven by the employer. Unemployment hearings do follow standard evidence rules, which means that the employer cannot use hearsay or speculation to make out a claim of willful misconduct.

By default, an employee is not eligible for unemployment if they quit or abandon a job. However, an employee who has quit or abandoned a job could still get unemployment if they have a “necessitous and compelling” reason to quit. Under PA law, an employee must prove that “necessitous and compelling” reason.

An employer placing an employee in an unexpectedly hazardous condition has been found to be a “necessitous and compelling” reason to quit in the past. An employer materially changing job conditions has also been found to be a necessitous and compelling reason to quit. However, it is expected that an employee will discuss these concerns with an employer and attempt to resolve them before quitting.

We’ve talked to a number of people who do not believe that their employer has taken appropriate Coronavirus precautions, or have had their job duties substantially changed due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you fall into those categories, we strongly recommend that you put your concerns in writing and give them to the employer. Make sure to keep a copy of everything you send or receive. If you have a verbal discussion with someone, immediately take notes about what was said. All these things can be major evidence in an unemployment case.

If your concerns are not resolved and you need to quit your job, we strongly encourage you to take the time to apply for unemployment. The worst that will happen is that you will be denied.

We are happy to assist you in communicating with your employer about your concerns. In the event that you are denied unemployment, or your unemployment benefits are challenged, we are ready to represent you in an unemployment hearing.

If you or someone you know is considering filing for unemployment compensation or has been denied, contact us today to discuss your rights!

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