Jailed Employee Still Gets Unemployment Benefits

An employee got fired for missing work due to his incarceration, yet still was awarded unemployment compensation benefits.  How does that happen?

Farah M. Muse was arrested, jailed and unable to report for work on two consecutive days.  With no telephone, he could not call his employer but did have his lawyer contact the company on the second day of his absence.  The next day, he was fired under the employer’s policy requiring employees to personally call their supervisor within two hours of the start of their shift.

State Unemployment Office Denies Benefits

Muse filed for unemployment benefits with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), testifying that on the day he was arrested, his wife hit him and injured his eye. Muse called the police but when they arrived, his wife immediately told them that Muse was a child abuser.  The police arrested both Muse and his wife.

DEED ruled that because of his absences while in jail, Muse was terminated for misconduct, which disqualifies an employee from receiving unemployment benefits under Minnesota’s unemployment compensation statute.   That statute defines misconduct as any intentional, negligent, or indifferent conduct that displays clearly:

(1) a serious violation of the standards of behavior the employer has the right to reasonably expect of the employee; or

(2) a substantial lack of concern for the employment.

Going to Jail May Not Have Been His Fault

Muse then appealed this ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, who sided with Muse and reversed the decision.  They concluded that while an employer certainly has the right to expect its employees to obey attendance policies and show up for work, there is no absolute rule that being absent from work due to incarceration automatically constitutes employment misconduct.  Instead, every case must be reviewed on its own merits.

In this instance, the Appeals Court noted that the stated purpose of the unemployment compensation system is to help workers “who are unemployed through no fault of their own.” Since the criminal charges were still pending against Muse, DEED should not have concluded that he was at fault for having been taken to jail. Instead, they should have considered the legitimacy of the allegations made by Muse’s spouse and whether it was those allegations, and not Muse’s own behavior, that caused Muse’s incarceration to be outside of his control.  In other words, they could have found that Muse’s stay in jail was not attributable to intentional conduct on his part.

Bottom Line

This case does not mean that every employee who misses work due to incarceration will be ruled eligible for benefits. However, if the evidence reflects that the incarceration resulted from events that the employee was unable to control and thus were not the employee’s fault, that employee may still be eligible for unemployment benefits.