For employment purposes, Pennsylvania is an at will state, generally meaning, that an employer may fire an employee for almost any reason, and there is little that an employee can do to stop it. I say almost, because there are a number of federal and state laws protecting employees from wrongful terminations. Since those laws are not the subject of this particular article, we are going to ignore them and assume that whatever grounds were used to terminate the employee were not discriminatory or illegal.
Even though an employer in Pennsylvania does not need a good reason to terminate an employee, they do need a good reason to deny unemployment benefits. One of the most common reasons an employer will argue to deny benefits is willful misconduct.
On the surface this rule is pretty clear: if an employee intentionally does something against an employer’s policy it is willful misconduct. Unfortunately, reality is never as clear as the legislation intends. If you are like most employers, you are reading that and smiling, because obviously what the employee did was against your policy, everyone knows you aren’t allowed to do that on the job, which is why you fired them. Conversely, if you are the employee, you are pointing out that you had no knowledge of the policy or that the policy was not applicable tot he facts at hand. Those two reactions highlight the first hurdles that need to be resolved in willful misconduct, 1) what was the policy and 2) did the employee know the policy?
Another big issue that comes into play with a willful misconduct termination is whether or not the employee had a good reason for acting the way they did. Let me paint you a very simple picture; Mary owns a sno-cone stand with a drive through. Mary has had issues with employees wasting water in the past, so she has a strict policy that the main water hose is to only go into the ice machine and any removal of that line will lead to immediate termination. A customer pulls up to the drive through and their car is on fire. Jon takes the main water hose out of the machine and puts out the fire. Mary fires Jon for disconnecting the water line.
Again, on the surface this should be straight forward; Jon knew and broke a company policy and as such should be denied unemployment benefits. But did Jon have a good reason for acting the way he did? If Jon hadn’t disconnected the water line to put out the fire would the stand have been damaged, or worse could the customer have been hurt? What if there were alternatives to Jon’s actions that would not have violated the policy? Has Mary always followed the policy? If the policy says the employee must be terminated has she always terminated the offender or is she using this as an excuse to not only fire Jon but also deny him benefits?
Clearing, or making sure a former employee can’t clear, those initial hurdles and navigating the grey area of “good cause” is what will make, or break, an unemployment compensation case. Pennsylvania unemployment compensation appeals do not require that you be represented by an attorney. But that doesn’t mean you should go in there by yourself. If your benefits are denied, you could be missing out on hundreds of dollars per week. I know the unemployment compensation deadlines are tight, which is why I am more than happy to meet you in any one of our thirteen offices or over the phone to discuss your case. For a consultation call me today 1-877-632-4656 or 717-200-HELP. Don’t have time for a call or simply prefer email? Drop me a line at [email protected].