On August 29, 2013, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania – an intermediate appellate court – affirmed an Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR) decision that because an employee who was earning $9.00 an hour was unable to afford to pay for care repair or to buy another vehicle, the employee showed “good cause” for violating the employer’s rule that an employee must have reliable transportation, and therefore was entitled to unemployment compensation (UC) benefits. Bell Socialization Services v. UCBR, Pa. Commw. Ct., No. 414 C.D. 2013 (August 29, 2013).
In that case, Shamela D. Hightower worked in a full-time residential service provider for Bell Socialization Services, Inc. (Bell) from June 2011 until her termination on July 16, 2012, earning an hourly wage of $9.00. As a residential service provider, Hightower was required by Bell to have “reliable transportation” in order to transport clients to doctor appointments and other events. Hightower had a vehicle at the time she was hired by Bell, but that car failed mechanically at some point after she began her job there. She then drove her mother’s car until that vehicle was rendered inoperable in an accident in January 2012. On May 15, 2012, Bell directed Hightower to obtain reliable transportation by July 15, 2012. Hightower was unable to fix her car or finance another by that deadline, and her employment was terminated on July 16.
Hightower’s application for UC benefits was granted by the local service center, and Bell appealed. A hearing was held in November 2012, after which the referee affirmed the service center’s decision. Bell then appealed to the Pennsylvania UCBR. The UCBR affirmed the referee’s decision, and Bell petitioned the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court for review. That Court affirmed the UCBR’s decision.
In Pennsylvania, as in many states, an individual is not entitled to unemployment compensation benefits if an employer can show that the claimant’s job loss was based upon “willful misconduct.” When an employer bases its claim of willful misconduct on the violation of a work rule, the employer must show that a “reasonable” rule existed of which the claimant was aware, and that the claimant violated that rule. Once the employer has done so, the burden shifts to the employee to prove good cause for her actions. In order to establish “good cause,” an employee must show that her actions are justified or reasonable under the circumstances.
Hightower understood Bell’s work rule requiring her to have a reliable vehicle; she in fact complied with that rule, replacing her own non-functioning vehicle by borrowing one from her mother. However, once her mother’s car was rendered inoperable, Hightower was unable to afford to fix either car or buy another vehicle on her $9.00/hour wage, and could not borrow money from her family to do so. Pennsylvania courts have determined that the inability or incapacity to meet an employer’s standards is not willful misconduct. Based upon that fact, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the UCBR’s decision that Hightower’s failure to procure a vehicle was justifiable, and was good cause for her actions.
While this decision was made by a Pennsylvania court, and is based on Pennsylvania law, the decision is one of which employers should take note. Of particular interest is footnote #3, in which the Court states that it is “guided by the remedial, humanitarian objectives” of the UC law. Before determining to litigate a UC case to a state’s appellate courts, employers may want to consider whether an alternative solution exists. In this case, the employer actually argued that Hightower “should have attempted to transfer to another job with [Bell] that did not require a vehicle.” If transferring to another position was a valid option, it may have benefitted the employer to have raised that issue at an earlier stage of the appellate process, which would have avoided this adverse outcome for the company.