Thursday, August 12, 2010

Catching Zzzs and Still Getting UC - Case of the Week #2

This week's employment law case of the week is Philadelphia Parking Authority v. UCBR. In this recent Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania case, the Court awarded unemployment compensation (UC) benefits to an employee who was terminated for sleeping on the job.

To understand what makes this case special, it is important to understand a few UC basics. An employee is ineligible for benefits when he or she was terminated for "willful misconduct." The term "willful misconduct" includes deliberate violation of an employer's rule. If an employer establishes that an employee intentionally violated a rule, the employee may establish that he or she violated the rule for "good cause" and still collect UC.

In this case, the employee was caught sleeping on the job in violation of a workplace rule. The employee, however, had sleep apnea which would cause her to fall asleep without even realizing it. Now, you may be thinking that this sounds like a "good cause" (and generally, health conditions can constitute good causes). What makes this case remarkable is that the Court does not even require her to establish good cause!

Instead, the Court held that the employer failed to establish that the employee's violation of the rule was intentional or deliberate:
The record reveals that Claimant's position involved sitting in the money room for hours with nothing to do and that she would get drowsy. Claimant recognized the problem and attempted to address it by informing Employer that she was tiring and asking for additional work to keep her busy and alert. However, with the exception of two small assignments, Employer did not provide her with additional work or take any other action to remedy the situation.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Ledbetter noted that "[A]nyone left alone in a room for hours on end late at night with nothing to do might well fall asleep unintentionally."

Is the take-away that some jobs are soooo boring that employers can't reasonably expect employees to stay awake? Not so fast. It's hard to say whether this case would have come out the same way had the employee not had (or at least testified to having) sleep apnea. Also, the employee took affirmative steps to remedy the situation by notifying the employer of the problem and requesting more work. Finally, employers can still provide evidence of intent to sleep (ex. turning off the light, grabbing a pillow, going out to the car, etc.).

Citation: Philadelphia Parking Authority v. UCBR, 2010 WL 2757325 (Commw. Ct. July 14, 2010).

Case of the Week is a weekly feature. On Fridays I will cover a particularly important, fun , or interesting employment law case. This is entry #2. All Case of the Weeks are tagged COTW.

Posted by Philip Miles, an employment lawyer with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania.