• David Manes

Understanding willful misconduct in unemployment cases

If an employer fires you from you job, you may not be automatically eligible for Unemployment Compensation benefits under Pennsylvania law. Sometimes the law will deny you benefits if the firing was done for sufficient reasons. One of the reasons for which an employer can fire you and deny you benefits is if the firing was done because of willful misconduct on the part of the employee. Below we will define willful misconduct and show you how and under what circumstances your benefits can be denied because of it.

What is willful misconduct?

Under Section 402(e), 43 P.S. § 802(e) of the Pennsylvania unemployment laws it states that an employee shall be ineligible for benefits if his discharge is due to willful misconduct. However, the statute itself does not define willful misconduct. Therefore, PA courts have filled in the blanks to define willful misconduct.

The PA courts have defined willful misconduct as actions that fall under the following categories: willful disregard of the employer’s interests, deliberate violations of the employer’s rules, disregard of the employer’s reasonable standards of behavior or negligent disregard of an employer’s interests or of the employee’s duties and obligations.

However, the more instructive law to follow is the standard that the employer must meet in order to prove willful misconduct as described below.

How the employer must prove willful misconduct?

The employer must show the following in order to deny someone benefits for willful misconduct:

  1. An intent on the part of the employee to commit the conduct

  2. The actions must be detrimental to the employer’s interests

  3. The conduct was material to the employee’s work

  4. The conduct violated a standard that was uniformly applied

  5. The conduct violated a standard that was reasonable

Understanding the definitions

The rule above has evolved in certain ways and a few key points should be kept in mind when bringing or challenging a willful misconduct case. First, negligent behavior alone will almost never be enough to show willful misconduct anymore. There generally must be some presence of intent; continuous accidents will not qualify as long as the employee acted while trying to perform her job to the best of her ability. Next, the conduct must actually affect the employee’s work; so many types of off-work conduct will not qualify. Last, the standard must be uniformly applied to all employees. If an employer ignores his own standards or enforces them unevenly, it will not qualify.

Employer’s burden

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the employer has the burden of proving the employee committed willful misconduct. So if the employer does not show up to the hearing or put on a case, the employee can rebut the case much more easily.

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