As I discussed in my last blog post (http://www.palermolaw.com/discharge-for-misconduct-under-nc-unemployment-laws/) the threshold decision I had to make as an administrative law judge ruling on unemployment claim appeals was often whether an employee quit the employment, or was discharged by the management (we don’t say “terminated” because the statutory term is “discharge”).
“Good Cause Attributable To The Employer”
An employee who outright quits the employment may yet still be eligible for unemployment benefits, because of the way the statute is written. Like many legislative things in North Carolina, the statute is written in a kind of backwards way. “An individual does not have a right to benefits and is disqualified from receiving benefits if the Division determines that the individual left work for a reason other than good cause attributable to the employer”. It’s sort of written in a negative when it would have been easier to say “An individual who quits the employment shall only be eligible for benefits if the individual left for good cause attributable to the employer.”
In simpler terms, if an employee quits because of working conditions, that employee may be eligible for unemployment benefits if, as the rules state, the person quit not because of an unwillingness to work (lazy) or any particular sensitivity, but truly quits because a reasonable person would have quit under the same circumstances. Let’s talk about what this means.
A lot depends on the nature of the employment and what is traditionally allowed or tolerated as “bad” employer conduct in any particular industry. Generally I would also look to whether the employer conduct is continuous; whether the employer ignores the employee’s request to stop the conduct (and if the request is reasonable); whether worker safety or professional advancement is placed in jeopardy; whether the employer has a history of engaging in such conduct. And this could mean, for a larger employer, whether it allows its supervisors to engage in the conduct.
Examples of a good quit
So a supervisor on a construction site making fun of an employee who dropped a box of nails I would not have considered “good cause attributable to the employer.” Construction is a rough and tumble occupation where needling is traditionally part of the workplace, it happened once, get back to work and get over it. But if it continued, the employee requested the conduct be stopped, the supervisor does not treat any other employee in the same manner, then I might consider the workplace hostile and a quitting by the employee not unreasonable.
That same behavior in a medical office in front of patients, however, I would seriously consider whether it was “good cause” for an employee to quit. In that case the supervisor would be destroying patient confidence in the worker, as well as denigrating the worker’s competence. I used to hear a lot of supervisor cases.
To the contrary, a construction worker who quit because the worker did not like working out in the Sun because it was too hot, has not shown good cause “attributable to the employer”. The Sun, as we all know, is out of the control of any one employer. Likewise, often an employee takes a job where the work is just too difficult, or beyond the employee’s skill set to perform. They quit. The quitting in a case like this would not be compensable under the North Carolina unemployment statute.
The analysis can get surprisingly complex, and then add in unsophisticated employer and employee testimony to make the hearing officer’s job even more difficult. Focus on the issues is what is needed. That’s what my experience ruling on these cases can bring to an employer’s hearing on these matters. In conclusion, analyzing a “quit” case under the unemployment statute involves a two part test: whether the reason for the quit is “for good cause” and not just an unwillingness to work; and whether the reason for the quit is “attributable to the employer.” Next up in this series; the ambiguous quit/discharge situation
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