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The Benefits from Sleeping on the Job

James W. Cushing, Esq. on 5/2/2012

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Being caught sleeping on the job is almost always grounds to be fired from one’s job and, as a result, being denied Unemployment Compensation; however the recent case Philadelphia Parking Authority v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review would seem to indicate otherwise in certain circumstances.

The unemployment compensation claimant in the matter-at-issue, Charlene L. Henney (hereinafter “Claimant”) worked the 3:30pm to midnight shift for the Philadelphia Parking Authority (hereinafter “Employer”). Due to the late hours, and the lack of work for her to do, she would occasionally become drowsy. In order to combat her drowsiness, she often requested additional work from Employer for her to do. Despite the Claimant’s efforts to secure additional work, Employer failed to provide any save on two occasions. Claimant eventually developed some health problems, was hospitalized, and diagnosed with sleep apnea.

On at least four separate occasions Claimant fell asleep during her 3:30pm to midnight shift. Employer terminated Claimant’s employment and contested her application for unemployment compensation. At an unemployment compensation referee’s hearing, Employer argued that Claimant committed willful misconduct and demonstrated that Claimant slept on the job, that it had a specific work rule proscribing sleeping on the job of which Claimant was aware, and that it was Claimant’s alleged violation of the rule against sleeping on the job that caused her to be terminated. In response, Claimant did not deny sleeping on the job. Instead, she testified that she suffered from sleep apnea which caused involuntary sleeping. In addition, she further testified that she requested additional work from Employer in order to help her remain awake during the late hours of her shift and Employer failed to provide the work requested.

In making its decision, the Court had to determine what constitutes willful misconduct. In its review of the applicable law, the Court noted that willful misconduct requires a wanton, intentional, or willful disregard for an employer’s interests, deliberate violation of an employer’s rules, and/or intentional disregard for standards an employer can expect from an employee. The employer has the burden to prove that the claimant was aware of the work rule and willfully, intentionally, and/or deliberately violated it. A Court is to review all of the claimant’s actions in light of all the surrounding circumstances, including the reasons for non-compliance with the work rule. If the employer can meet its burden as described above, the burden shifts to the claimant who then has the burden to prove that her decision to violate the employer’s work rule was for good cause. A physical illness can constitute good cause to violate a work rule. If the claimant had good cause to violate the work rule, then a claimant can be eligible for unemployment benefits. A claimant’s own testimony can serve a competent testimony to her own medical problems.

The Court ruled that the Employer did not meet its burden of proof. The Court found that the Claimant recognized that working late hours with little work to do made her understandably drowsy. The Court further found that the Claimant acted in a responsible manner by informing the Employer of her lack of work, and drowsiness, by asking for additional work. The Employer had the opportunity to provide the work, but failed to do so. Based on the all of the surrounding circumstances, the Court ruled that Claimant’s falling asleep at her position was not the result of any willful, deliberate, or intentional act but the natural result of late nights with little to no work to do. In other words, the Court ruled that Claimant did not intentionally go to sleep while on duty. Due to the fact that the Employer did not meet its burden, the Court did not have to engage in any analysis into Claimant’s sleep apnea as the burden never shifted to Claimant.

In the final analysis, when it comes to whether a claimant is eligible for benefits, a Claimant must commit willful misconduct to be deemed ineligible. If the action – though misconduct – was not done willfully, then a claimant will be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits, even if that misconduct was sleeping on the job.

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