Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Honest Mistake" as "Willful Misconduct" in Pennsylvania UC

In Oliver v. UCBR, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that a preschool teacher's "honest mistake" could constitute "willful misconduct." In PA, former employees are ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits when terminated for "willful misconduct" making this an important holding for Pennsylvania workers.

The "mistake" was losing track of a child in her preschool class. The teacher claims she tripped and fell on her way outside, and as she regained her composure one child had gone back into the room without her realizing it. The teacher's supervisor approached her on the playground and asked her how many kids she had with her. The teacher answered "six," indicating that she believed to have all of her children with her. Of course, she was wrong, and thankfully the supervisor had the sixth child by that point.

I will note that this was the second incident that month in which the teacher violated the school's 100% supervision policy (all kids supervised at all times). The kids were two(!) so obviously it's important that someone supervise them.

For me, the most telling passage was:
The Board did not find credible Claimant’s excuse that she left the child in the playroom by accident. The Board concluded that Claimant intentionally failed to observe the whereabouts of the children in her care and failed to show good cause for the violation of Employer’s rule of 100% supervision.
The "Board" is the UCBR which is the ultimate finder of fact in these matters. My take: this case is primarily about the deference due to determinations of the UCBR. Further, the UCBR found it difficult to believe that someone could actually be trying to watch six kids and just trip, lose one, and not even realize it.

However, there's a crucial note at the end of the opinion: "Even if her actions constituted an honest mistake, it would not justify the violation of Employer's rule." The Court noted that the employee would have realized her mistake of losing a child had she just counted the children upon regaining her balance. She knew the rule, but didn't follow it, and therefore she gets no UC. But does this case stand for the proposition that "honest mistake is no excuse?"

My interpretation: had she been following the rule and accounting for the children, the "honest mistake" of tripping and losing sight of one of the kids would have been discovered immediately. I think this case comes out differently in that situation. While no one thinks she intentionally abandoned the child, she knew the rule and didn't obey it. And while this case will likely be applied in a variety of employment contexts, this led to a  two-year old left alone, making "whoops" a little less tolerable.

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