Unemployment Compensation — Necessitous and Compelling Reason to Quit Employment Part 2

With a high national unemployment rate, it seems unthinkable that anyone would voluntarily quit a steady job without the good fortune of having another job lined up first. But even in a down economy, there can be forces greater than the pressure to maintain a steady paycheck.

In an earlier column, we explored some of the circumstances in which an employee can collect unemployment compensation benefits after voluntarily quitting his or her job. Today we discuss some of the more recent developments in this area of unemployment compensation law.

As the reader may recall, an employee who voluntarily resigns a position of employment may have the same right to collect unemployment benefits as an employee who was involuntarily separated from employment through a layoff, if that employee quit that job for a “necessitous and compelling” reason. While the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Act at 43 P.S. Section 804 (b) dictates the “necessitous and compelling” standard, it does not provide much guidance as to what the phrase “necessitous and compelling” actually means. 

The job of fleshing out the meaning of this “necessitous and compelling” standard has been left to the Pennsylvania courts. In some cases, difficulties in the employment itself provide the employee with a compelling reason to quit. In many of these cases, such as those where an employee quits after an employer fails or refuses to address repeated sexual harassment or unreasonable workplace safety or health issues despite the employee’s repeated requests for corrective measures, the employee’s entitlement to unemployment compensation is now clear.  But in cases where the employee quits for personal reasons unrelated to the job itself, the courts are still working out the rules.

1.  Child Care Cases.

We previously reported on the case of Beachem v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 760 A.2d 68 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2000). In Beachem, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that an employee who had quit his job to care for his special needs child had a necessitous and compelling reason to quit when the child had a need for the type of daily psychological support that only the claimant, as the child’s parent, could provide.  More recently, however, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court denied unemployment compensation benefits to an employee who had failed to exhaust all child care alternatives before quitting her job.  Shaffer v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 928 A.2d 391 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2007). In Shaffer, the employee needed different child care arrangements when her employer moved her work location 11 miles farther from her home. After determining that one particular child care arrangement would have been cost-prohibitive, the employee immediately resigned her employment due to her child care issues and the increased costs of commuting to the new job location. The court held that while the need to provide care for a child may still be a necessitous and compelling reason to resign from a job, in order to be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits, the employee must first exhaust all other child care options. For this reason, the court upheld the denial of unemployment compensation benefits.

There are now a number of reported Pennsylvania decisions in which family obligations have provided employees with necessitous and compelling reasons to resign their employment. During this past year, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court extended this line of cases to award benefits to an employee who quit his job to care for someone who was not a member of his family. In Wagner v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 965 A.2d 323 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2009), the court awarded benefits to a man who first took a leave of absence from his job in Iraq before ultimately quitting that job to assist his fiancée in her dealings with an abusive ex-boyfriend, a difficult custody fight and a child with medical problems. While it could be said that the employee explored alternatives to quitting by first taking a leave of absence from work to address his fiancée’s difficulties and then seeking work stateside before ultimately quitting, the court did not even discuss the adequacy of his efforts to exhaust alternatives to resigning his employment.  Instead, the court simply concluded that the employee’s “domestic circumstances” provided him with good cause to quit.

However, within the past few months, the Commonwealth Court limited the potential out-of-family reach of the Wagner case in Dopson v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, WL 3790188 (Nov. 13, 2009). In Dopson, the court explained away the Wagner decision by reasoning that it had involved not just a boyfriend, but a “future stepfather” (though the basis for the court’s certainty of a future marriage is somewhat unclear).  The Dopson court proceeded to reject a grandmother’s claim that child care requirements for a newborn grandchild had provided a necessitous and compelling reason for her to quit her job, reasoning that (1) the Pennsylvania courts have never allowed such a claim when it involved a grandparent caring for a grandchild (as opposed to a parent caring for a child), and (2) the previous decisions in which child care considerations had amounted to a necessitous and compelling reason to quit a job had all involved children with emotional or physical problems, unlike the case of the newborn in Dopson.

2.  “Follow the Spouse” Cases.

The Pennsylvania courts have long allowed unemployment compensation benefits to individuals who have had to resign their jobs to follow spouses who have been relocated to other positions of employment, if (1) the move was necessitated by circumstances beyond the control of the spouse, and (2) there was economic hardship in maintaining two residences or the move caused insurmountable commuting problems.  Wheeler v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 450 A.2d 775 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1982).

While subsequent decisions limited this “follow the spouse” rule to married couples, the courts are now confronting what may be a new wave of cases challenging the constitutionality of these earlier decisions denying benefits in cases of same-sex couples.  In Procito v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 945 A.2d 261 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2008), the court side-stepped the potentially thorny constitutional issue of not extending the “follow the spouse” rule from married couples to same-sex couples by denying benefits on grounds that the change of job was motivated by personal reasons (the desire to live in a less stressful environment and to be near a college-aged child), and not by a necessitous and compelling economic reason.  While the Procito court was able to avoid the constitutional challenge for the time being, the issue is likely to resurface in another case in the not-too-distant future.

It is difficult to spot any plain trends in these recent decisions of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. What is clear is that while the court is grappling with the fact that both conventional and unconventional families alike are forced to hard economic choices when child care and job relocation issues arise, the court is also exhibiting a reluctance to further expand unemployment compensation entitlement for employees who have voluntarily quit their jobs.