The Lawletter Vol 35 No 9, June 17, 2011
May an employee voluntarily leave work due to emotional distress arising out of a family crisis and still be eligible for unemployment compensation? In Pennsylvania, a claimant qualifies for benefits if s/he demonstrates that the cause for voluntarily leaving employment is "of a necessitous and compelling nature." 43 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 802(b). To meet that burden of proof, the claimant must establish that (1) circumstances existed that produced real and substantial pressure to terminate employment; (2) like circumstances would compel a reasonable person to act in the same manner; (3) s/he acted with ordinary common sense; and (4) s/he made a reasonable effort to preserve the employment. In the recent case of Fiedler v. Unempl. Comp. Bd. of Review, No. 1984 C.D. 2010, 2011 WL 1486078 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Apr. 18, 2011), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania applied this standard to the case of a worker who left his out-of-state job and returned home to Pennsylvania to reunite with his family to cope with the tragic loss of his adult son. The court found that the claimant had met the burden of proof and was entitled to benefits.
The claimant and his wife had resided in Pennsylvania for 13 years. When he became unemployed and unable to find work in Pennsylvania, he broadened his job search to include positions in Oklahoma. On November 1, 2008, the claimant's 20‑year‑old son was killed in a car accident. The following month, in December 2008, the claimant accepted a job offer to work in Oklahoma, beginning on January 5, 2009. The claimant purchased a home in Oklahoma and intended to work there for at least five years. His wife, who was a teacher, planned to work for another two years in Pennsylvania before retiring and joining her husband in Oklahoma. The claimant's 25‑year‑old son and 27‑year‑old twin daughters resided in Pennsylvania.
A year after moving to Oklahoma, in January 2010, the claimant gave his employer notice of his intent to resign, offering to stay until a replacement could be found. As reasons, he stated that he was experiencing emotional difficulties due to his son's death and that he no longer wished to be separated from his family in Pennsylvania. Upon his return to Pennsylvania, he filed a claim for unemployment benefits, which was denied initially. Following a hearing, the referee awarded benefits, but that award was overturned by the Unemployment Compensation Review Board ("UCRB").
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court found that the UCRB had erred in concluding that the worker's decision to return to Pennsylvania to reunite with his family in order to cope with a tragic loss did not constitute necessitous and compelling cause to leave his employment. The court reasoned that the claimant's situation was not significantly distinguishable from that of the claimant in an earlier case, Beachem v. Unempl. Comp. Bd. of Review, 760 A.2d 68, 71 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2000), in which the claimant was entitled to Pennsylvania unemployment insurance benefits after he left his employment in Alabama to return home to Pennsylvania to help support his 11‑year‑old son, who had been having emotional and behavioral problems while his father was away. The only distinction was that, in Fiedler, it was the claimant himself, instead of a family member, who was having emotional problemsCin which case the pressure on the claimant may have been greater than the pressure on the claimant in Beacham. In addition, a reasonable person unable to cope with a tragic loss due to separation from his family would be compelled to act as the claimant did. The UCRB also erred in finding that the claimant had not taken reasonable efforts to preserve his employment, since the record plainly showed that the claimant had told his employer about the emotional difficulties he was having trying to cope with the loss of his child.