No Unemployment Benefits After Religious Dispute

No Unemployment Benefits After Religious Dispute

A worker who refused to wear a name tag bearing a religious “mission statement,” lost the right to collect unemployment benefits after the court found that he quit his job and had no clear religious beliefs that were violated in the workplace. Mathis v. UCBR, 64 A.3d 293 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2103).

The worker was employed for almost two years at a small heating and air conditioning company. The company’s owner included a spiritual mission statement in the employee handbook and on a name tag which all employees were required to wear. The name tag displayed the employee’s name, photo and company logo on the front; on the back, the name tag included a mission statement that stated that the company was not just a business, but was a ministry, and that the company was run in a way “most pleasing to the Lord.”

After working for the company for almost two years, the employee decided to cover the back of his name tag with duct tape, later explaining that he felt the company owner was ‘always pushing his religion.” When the owner noticed the duct tape, he told the employee to remove it or he would lose his job. The employee left the workplace and filed for unemployment.

In the subsequent litigation, the court focused on two issues. First, the court analyzed whether the employee was fired or quit. Because the employer created an option, conditioning the loss of the job on the employee’s removing the duct tape, the court found that the owner had not fired the employee. Instead, the court noted, the employer had given the employee a choice to keep his job by removing the duct tape. But because the employee then simply chose to leave the workplace, he was determined to have quit his job.

When work place disputes arise, an employee is not considered to have been fired if the employer has given the employee a choice. Statements from employers like “there is the door,” or “shape up or ship out,” are not considered firings. When employees are given an alternative to follow workplace rules or be fired, the courts focus closely on the employees’ response. Generally, an employer must clearly and unequivocally fire an employee for the termination to be considered a firing.

Next, the court focused on the religious issues. The court noted that while the employee claimed that his religious freedom and religious beliefs had been violated at work, the employee never identified his own religious beliefs and never explained just what he found offensive or burdensome in the name tag mission statement or in the workplace environment.

In defending his name tag mission statement, the business owner pointed out that the company employed workers of many faiths, and that while he advanced Christian beliefs, his Jewish employees and non-religious employees had no objections to the atmosphere at the workplace or to the content of the name tag statement.

Small businesses have broad leeway in introducing religious values in the workplace. While government agencies must respect constitutional principles of the separation of church and state, private employers may advance religious goals, provided they do so openly, without coercion and without discriminating against employees of different faiths.

Sleeping on the Job & Unemployment

Sleeping on the Job & Unemployment

An employee fired for sleeping on the job won her unemployment claim recently after convincing the court that she was not at fault for falling asleep at work.

The employee was a ‘money room technician,” whose duties involved counting money at a city parking garage. Working a shift that began in the late afternoon and ended at midnight, the employee spent a lot of time alone in a “counting room,” doing nothing. She requested additional work, so that she could avoid become drowsy and falling asleep but her supervisors did not give her tasks to fill her time. The employee suffered from diabetes and sleep apnea; she claimed that advised her supervisors that her sleep apnea sometimes caused her to fall asleep without realizing it. After hearing complaints from other employees that the employee was sleeping on the job, a supervisor found the employee asleep in the counting room and fired her.

In the unemployment compensation hearings, the supervisors denied that the employee had ever complained about medical conditions that could cause her to fall asleep. The hearing officer found that the employee was more credible. The employee testified that she repeatedly asked for more work so that she would not “konk out,” sitting alone in the counting room for lengthy periods. She also claimed that when asking for more work she was specific about her problems with sleep apnea.

The appellate court agreed with the hearing officer and found that the employee was not guilty of willful misconduct that could justify a denial of unemployment compensation. The court found that an employer seeking to avoid paying unemployment compensation must prove that the employee was aware of a work rule and violated it intentionally and deliberately. In the case of the sleeping employee, the court found that the city parking garage did not prove that the employee’s conduct was willful. In addition, the court found “physical illness can constitute good cause” for an employee’s failure to follow a workplace rule.

Employees with health problems cannot systematically violate work place rules and collect unemployment. But where an employee shows legitimate reasons that add up to “good cause,” the employee may be entitled to unemployment compensation after being fired for breaking work place rules.

 

Work Stoppage and Unemployment Benefits

Work Stoppage and Unemployment Benefits

Pennsylvania unemployment law denies unemployment benefits to employees who are out of work due to a “stoppage of work which exists because of a labor dispute.” An exception to the denial of benefits occurs when the employer creates a “lock out.” An employer can be found to have created a lock out, even when the employees chose to strike.

Recently, over 1,000 nurses and allied health services workers at a Pennsylvania university hospital system struggled over the rights of workers and their families to tuition benefits. Over a period of several years, the University changed its tuition policies. Eventually, the nurses and workers union brought an unfair labor practice charge against the University, claiming that its changes to the tuition policies violated their contracts and amounted to an unfair labor practice. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board sided with the union, found that the University had engaged in unfair labor practices and ordered the University to restore benefits and make reimbursements to affected employees.

The University disagreed with the Board and appealed. The union responded by initiating a work stoppage, or strike, with picket lines. After nearly a month, a settlement was negotiated, the University dropped its appeal and the workers returned to work, with a new contract and agreed-upon tuition benefits.

Despite the fact that the union initiated the work stoppage, the employees won their subsequent claims for unemployment benefits during the strike because the court found that the work stoppage was actually a lock out by the University. To decide whether a work stoppage is a lockout, the courts focus on who disrupted the “status quo.” The University’s significant changes to the tuition policy amounted to a change in the status quo, and thus the union’s decision to strike qualified as an employer lock out. The court emphasized that the union’s willingness to continue to work despite a series of changes to the tuition policies, and the University’s decision to appeal the finding of unfair labor practices factored heavily in the determination that a lock out occurred.

The University may have avoided a lock out finding if it had restored the tuition benefits temporarily during its appeal. The workers benefited from their union’s willingness to continue to work, despite the tuition policy changes, for a lengthy period of time before striking. Workers who are hopeful of receiving unemployment benefits during work stoppage periods should carefully consider whether the union or the employer is closest to the previous status quo, as unemployment benefits are solidly based on that analysis.

 Cite

Temple University Health System v. Unemployment Comp. Bd., 67 A3d 1272 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013)

 

 

 

 

Unemployment Compensation & Absenteeism

Unemployment Compensation & Absenteeism

A Pennsylvania employee who missed work because he was bumped from an over-booked air flight was denied unemployment compensation when his employer convinced a Pennsylvania appellate court that the employee had engaged in willful misconduct. Grand Sport Auto v. UCBR, 55 A.3d 186 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012).

The employee worked for an auto-body company, cleaning cars. Over a six month period of time, the employee was tardy or absent without an excuse 19 times. The employer gave the employee written warnings for all the infractions. Nevertheless, the employer agreed that the employee could take vacation time to fly to Mexico to get married there. When the airline bumped the employee from his return flight, the employee called the employer from the airport and explained his dilemma, advising that he was “stuck in Mexico.” It was undisputed that the employee was unexpectedly bumped from his flight and that he returned to work as quickly as possible, missing only two days of work.

The employer fired the employee, due to his history of poor attendance and tardy arrivals. At the hearing on the employee’s unemployment claim, the employer’s management team testified that the employee had been warned multiple times and had been fired once for tardiness, then re-hired. Management team members had given the employee a later start time in the morning and had offered to call him to wake him up on work days. They testified that the decision to fire him again was made while the employee was away on his Mexico wedding trip.

The employee’s testimony eroded his claim. Announcing under oath, “Let’s be real,” the employee observed “Who’s not late more than twice in one month due to this, that or the other thing?” The hearing officer granted the employee unemployment benefits, reluctantly concluding that excessive absenteeism and tardiness are grounds for discharge, but do not constitute “willful misconduct,” the standard necessary to support a denial of unemployment benefits.

The employer appealed, and won. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court bluntly observed that employers have the right to expect that employees will attend work as scheduled, that they will arrive on time and that they will not leave early without permission. The Court described habitual tardiness as “inimical to an employer’s interest,” and held that a history of absenteeism or tardiness does constitute willful misconduct that will bar unemployment benefits for employees who are terminated as a result of that misconduct.

Employees who miss work or arrive late as a result of health problems should always document those events with medical records. Employers who expect to avoid unemployment claims should keep clear records of their employees’ time at work and must issue written warnings for absenteeism or tardiness.

 

Public Employees Forfeit Pensions

Public Employees Forfeit Pensions Due to Misconduct

Two recent Pennsylvania cases illustrate the enormous consequences misconduct or criminal convictions have on public employees’ retirement benefits. Both employees lost their entire pensions, based on different Pennsylvania laws; one was a judge, the other a teacher.

Judge

The office of magisterial district judge, formerly justice of the peace, is an elected judicial office. Magisterial district judges have varied duties, including setting initial bail in criminal cases, hearing criminal preliminary hearings, issuing orders of protection and handling minor civil cases. Magisterial district judges can be removed from office as a sanction for misconduct. The Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline hears cases of judicial misconduct brought against judges of all levels of office.

A magisterial district judge brought before the Court of Judicial Discipline on charges of “pervasive and extreme” misbehavior toward his staff, some of which had sexual connotations, and much of which included his routinely using “crude, coarse, vulgar, offensive and improper language,” was removed from office after trial following the Court’s finding that he had “brought his judicial office into disrepute.” Some of the charges of misconduct against him were dismissed by the Court. First elected in the late 1980’s, the judge was re-elected several times and had a state pension.

After his removal by the Court, the state pension service notified the removed judge that his pension was forfeit due to his removal from office. The judge appealed to the State Employees Retirement Board, claiming that some misconduct charges against him had been dismissed, that he was removed on grounds that he brought his office into disrepute rather than on grounds of misconduct, and that he was not actually removed from several terms of office he previously served in his cycle of re-elections. Despite the fact that the judicial removal proceedings had concluded against him, the judge characterized his behavior toward his staff as “jovial repartee.” The retirement Board upheld the forfeiture, noting that both the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Pennsylvania statutes which regulate judges provide that judges forfeit their pensions if removed from their office. The Board noted that all elected officials renew their pension contracts upon re-election, and that the terms of the pension contract “place at risk” all previous service and previous pension earnings. The Board also noted that the judge was aware of the contents of the Judicial Code and the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Teacher

In the case involving the teacher, he lost his pension after pleading guilty to corruption of a minor and indecent assault. Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act (PEPFA) provides for the loss of pension when a public official or employee is convicted of crimes involving the job or office “when public employment places him in a position to commit the crime.” The crimes involved are enumerated in the PEPFA and include crimes against students, and crimes involving theft, forgery, records tampering, bribery, false swearing and obstruction of law. Public officials and employees who can lose their pensions under the PEPFA include both state and local officials and employees.

In the case involving the teacher, he was already collecting his monthly pension payments at the time he entered the guilty plea, and was not aware that his conviction would trigger a pension forfeiture. When he received notice of the forfeiture, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea, but the presiding judge found that pension forfeiture was not a valid reason to withdraw a fully counseled guilty plea.

Strict Laws Result in Pension Forfeiture

Judges and all public officials and employees are subject to these strict laws that create the potential for pension forfeiture. Given the objections raised by the judge and teacher described above, it appears that some individuals with public pensions may not be fully aware of the grave risks of forfeiture they face.