Unemployment Compensation and Willful Misconduct
The Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law provides that employees fired for “willful misconduct” are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Pennsylvania’s appellate courts have published opinions that provide guidance to both employers and employees on what constitutes willful misconduct.
Willful misconduct can come from a single incident and can occur even when apparently minor rules are broken by the employee unintentionally. In one case, a truck driver hit a light standard while backing up, causing an undetermined amount of damage to the company truck and more than $6,000 in damage to the light standard.
The employer had a policy requiring its drivers to walk completely around their trucks before backing up; the employer fired the driver for failing to have followed that rule. The fired driver explained that he had stopped to make a business-related call and then backed the truck up without walking around it, assuming that it was safe to back up. He argued that his failure to walk around the truck was negligent but was not willful, since he had not made a deliberate decision to break the rule.
The court disagreed. Noting that there was no “mistake” in the employee’s conduct, the court focused on the fact that the driver knew of the rule and simply disobeyed it.
But an employee who posted two signs at the workplace referring to fellow employees as “morons” won his unemployment claims when the court found that “moron” is not a threatening word or one “totally outside the bounds of what one might expect to hear in a large and busy warehouse.”
In that case, the fired employee was concerned that fellow employees might try to use an inoperable and hazardous battery. He posted a sign that read “To the moron who can’t read this, do not use this battery.” Prior to his posting his strongly worded sign, employees had torn his “Do Not Use” signs off several defective batteries.
When an employee complained to the human resources director on the assumption that he was the target of the moron signs, the sign poster was fired for breaking the workplace rule against “threatening, intimidating or coercing” fellow employees. The court found that the use of abusive, vulgar, or offensive language in the workplace is willful misconduct even where the employer does not have a specific rule prohibiting rough language.
However, where offensive or profane language is provoked or amounts to a minor event, it does not constitute willful misconduct. In the case of the sign poster, the appeals court decided that the moron signs were purposed toward conveying the urgent need for caution and were not threatening or coercive.