When an individual is terminated from employment, he or she may apply for unemployment benefits. If the employer challenges the applicant’s eligibility for benefits, a hearing is held at which the employee must demonstrate eligibility.
The applicant bears the burden of showing that he is still “attached” to the work force - that he continues to be capable of and available for work, and that he continues to make good faith efforts to find work for which he is qualified - in short, to show that his continued lack of employment is not his own fault.
Once an applicant shows his eligibility for unemployment benefits, the employer may still challenge his eligibility by showing the applicant was discharged for “deliberate misconduct in willful disregard” of the employer’s interest or for violating a company policy.
Not all misconduct will disqualify an applicant. An applicant’s inattention, incompetence, bad judgment, or inability to do the work is not considered “intentional” misconduct, and would therefore not provide a basis for denying unemployment benefits.
In challenging the applicant’s eligibility, the burden rests on the employer to present substantial evidence that reasonably shows an intentional disregard of the employer’s interest or a knowing violation of a reasonable rule or policy of the employer.
A critical issue in a case of alleged willful misconduct is establishing the former employee’s state of mind at the time of the misconduct. His state of mind is a factual issue that the hearing officer must determine, taking into account the employee’s knowledge of the employer’s expectations, the reasonableness of those expectations and any mitigating circumstances.
When the applicant leaves work by choice rather than being discharged by the employer, the burdens are different. The law does not generally permit unemployment benefits following a voluntary separation.
To qualify for an exception, the applicant must establish that he left work for a good reason that is attributable to the employer, or that his reason for leaving was so urgent and compelling that his departure was essentially “involuntary.”
Examples of good reasons attributable to the employer are discrimination and sexual harassment. Examples of urgent and compelling “involuntary” reasons for leaving have included medical issues and a sudden lack of adequate transportation to work.
When an employee leaves his or her job, either voluntarily or by being discharged, the question of whether he or she qualifies for unemployment benefits can be a tricky one. Employers should seek the advice of an experienced employment attorney to help them determine whether to challenge the applicant’s eligibility for benefits.