Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Appellate Court Says Sleeping on the Job is Not Willful Misconduct

Anyone who ever had a teenage child many have heard a story like this before.

Darvin Hooker began working a second job at O’Hare Airport as an unarmed security officer through a private company that staffed that position. His employer had a policy that anyone sleeping on the job would be immediately discharged. Three months into the job, Hooker was found dozing off at his post because, according to Hooker, he had worked a 10 hour shift at his other job just prior to reporting to his security officer job. The company fired him and he applied for unemployment benefits.

Mr. Hooker was initially denied benefits because the Illinois Department of Employment Security found that he had engaged in willful misconduct, thereby revoking his right to unemployment. He appealed that decision and obtained a reversal of that finding and the agency’s Board of Review upheld his right to collect benefits. The company, presumably outraged at that decision, sought administrative review in the circuit court. The company lost and Mr. Hooker continued to enjoy his unemployment benefits. Not satisfied, the company appealed again to the Appellate Court.

Under Illinois law, an employee is entitled to unemployment benefits if he or she loses their job and remains ready willing and able to work. Some exceptions exist to an employee’s entitlement to benefits. One of the most common exception is if the employee was terminated for willful misconduct. The law defines that, for purposes of analyzing unemployment benefit eligibility, as when the employer had a reasonable work policy or rule in place which the employee willfully or deliberately violates and which causes harm to the employer or which the employee repeats after being warned. 

While the initial determination by IDES was that falling asleep on the job was willful misconduct, Mr. Hooker was apparently able to persuade every reviewing body after that decision that he couldn’t help it and the Appellate Court agreed. The court found Mr. Hooker’s arguments in the record to be persuasive that he did not intend to fall asleep because he did so in a public area and had no history of sleeping on the job (mind you, he had worked there only three months). The court affirmed his award of benefits. 

This opinion, although seemingly against common sense, does not hold that the employer was wrong in discharging Mr. Hooker, only that he should get unemployment benefits.  It does confirm, though, the great disfavor at the agency and court level to find against benefit eligibility for workers who have lost their job. The lesson for employers is to closely evaluate every contest to unemployment benefits. If the company chooses to contest eligibility based on the willful misconduct exception, it is equally important for the employer to demonstrate that the claimant violated a known policy as well as show willfulness in the claimant’s actions. As the court in this case noted, it is not enough to defeat a claim of eligibility to show that the claimant was careless or negligent, the employer must show the behavior was deliberate – meaning the claimant could have chosen not to do it. In the present case, it may have helped the employer to explore whether the claimant took any steps to prevent dozing off at work or to include suggestions in their policy to stave off sleepiness.