Unemployment compensation is a form of social insurance. Workers who lose their jobs receive benefits – which are less than they earned when employed – to provide a level of income while transitioning to the next job. Therefore the “default setting” for the unemployment compensation system is that an individual who has been separated from employment (having sufficient length of service to be eligible) will receive benefits unless disqualified under one of the statutory grounds for disqualification. The burden of proof is on the employer to sustain a disqualification.
One basis for separation that disqualifies a person from receipt of benefits is discharge for “wilful misconduct in the course of employment,” Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-236(a)(2)(B). “Wilful misconduct” is defined by regulation as “deliberate misconduct in wilful disregard of the employer’s interest,” and “deliberate misconduct” is defined as (among other things) an intentional act or omission which is “not consistent with the standards of behavior which an employer, in the operation of his business, should reasonably be able to expect from an employee.” Connecticut Dep’t of Labor Regulations §31-236-26 and 26a.
Friction is not unknown in the workplace, but most employers would probably agree that reasonably polite and cooperative behavior is an appropriate expectation for employees, and that an employee whose defiance or insubordination seems to leave the employer no choice but termination should not then be eligible to receive unemployment compensation benefits. This expectation was vindicated in a disqualification case recently affirmed by the Connecticut Appellate Court.
In the case of James Davis III v. Administrator of Unemployment Compensation, released on February 3, 2015, the Court reviewed Mr. Davis’s reaction to the news that he (along with other employees) was to attend mandatory anti-harassment training, which had been scheduled in part because of a complaint that Mr. Davis had made racially inappropriate remarks to a co-worker. Mr. Davis responded to the notice with an e-mail message denying that he had harassed anyone, and stating that he expressed himself but didn’t need therapy, that he satisfied customers, and “if that’s not good enough I suggest you give me a pink slip and I’ll walk.” He was then terminated and applied for unemployment benefits. He was ruled eligible at the initial intake, but an appeals referee, the Employment Security Board of Review, the Superior Court, and finally the Appellate Court all found that he was disqualified because he had been discharged for wilful misconduct.
In upholding the denial of benefits, the Appellate Court held that the mandatory training was a reasonable management directive, and that the response of Mr. Davis constituted insubordination. Mr. Davis’s own belief that he had not harassed anyone did not justify his insubordinate reaction to his manager’s reasonable request.
It is likely that some Connecticut employers have anecdotes of more egregious employee insubordination that did not result in disqualification from receipt of unemployment benefits, but the Davis case shows that there is balance in the unemployment compensation system for employers willing to undertake the effort of presenting their case to an appeals referee.