Legal Corner: Determining “Good Cause”

The State of Washington recognizes twelve specific reasons to allow unemployment benefits for employees who voluntarily leave their employment.

iStock_000006638199_SmallThese reasons are generally referred to as “good cause,” and include scenarios where a worker’s spouse relocates due to a job transfer, usual pay or hours decrease by 25 percent, the worksite becomes unsafe, or the claimant or an immediate family member becomes sick or disabled. A complete list can be found here.

A case decided by the Washington Supreme Court examines the issue of “good cause” in terms of (1) whether employees who voluntary quit their jobs must show how a disability necessitated leaving that job; and (2) whether part-time workers who are being required to work additional hours are entitled to unemployment benefits after they quit.

The case of Darkenwald v. State of Washington Employment Security Department addresses a denial of unemployment claims to the petitioner, a dental hygienist. In 1998, the petitioner suffered a back and neck work-place injury, which left her with permanent restrictions.  Even with her restrictions, she continued to work three to four days per week until 2006, when she reduced her work days to only Mondays and Wednesdays.  In 2010, her employer asked her to also work on Fridays.  The petitioner did not want to do so, but her employer made it clear that working on Fridays was a requirement of her employment.

The petitioner interpreted her employer’s request as a termination of her employment, and indicated in a meeting with her employer that she was being fired.  Her employer indicated that it was never its intent to fire the petitioner, and in fact believed that she had voluntarily quit.  The petitioner filed for unemployment benefits, and her employer fought her entitlement, indicating that she had voluntarily quit, thus making her ineligible for unemployment benefits.

At hearing, the petitioner argued that her prior disability precluded her from working the additional day requested by her employer. Illness or disability is a grounds for asserting that one has “good cause” to quit.  However, in order to assert disability as a “good cause” basis for quitting, the petitioner needed to show she had exhausted her remedies with her employer prior to quitting or filing a claim.

In this case, the petitioner did not reference her disability on her initial application for benefits with the Department, only stating “wanted me to work more days” as the reason for her separation from her employer. The first mention of her prior disability was at the unemployment hearing.  Additionally, under the statute, the petitioner was required to present a doctor’s note, which included physical restrictions, to her employer and seek accommodations before she quit her job.  Because she had not exhausted all reasonable alternatives prior to quitting, she was not entitled to benefits under the statute under a theory that a medical condition necessitated quitting.

Finally, the petitioner argued that because she was a part-time worker, she was not required to take accept more hours in order to receive unemployment benefits, citing a statute.  The court rejected her argument.  The statute makes clear that workers actively receiving employment benefits, whose prior work pattern had been part-time, do not need to accept full-time work to continue receiving benefits.  The court made clear however, that only workers who are receiving benefits are entitled to reject full-time job offers.  It is not a basis to voluntarily quit gainful employment and then receive unemployment benefits.  Of note, had the petitioner’s employer reduced her hours by 25 percent, it would have been considered “good cause” and established a basis for the petitioner to receive unemployment benefits.

Many people who leave their jobs due to disagreements or dissatisfaction with their employer may genuinely feel that they are being “forced” to quit.  Historically, the statute was amended to only allow for very specific reasons to quit, providing greater guidance to courts when considering whether to grant unemployment benefits to workers claiming they had no choice other than to quit their job.

In this case, the Supreme Court reinforced that the enumerated exceptions specifically stated in the statute are the only basis to grant unemployment benefits to workers who voluntarily quit their jobs. Merely feeling like one will be fired or even rationally believing that being terminated is eminent is insufficient to obtain unemployment benefits.

References
RCW 50.20.050
RCW 50.20.119
Darkenwald v. State of Washington Employment Security Department

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