Absenteeism decision excludes zero-tolerance policy as misconduct

Today’s appeals court decision in DWD v. LIRC (hereafter referred to as Beres), Appeal No. 2016-AP-1365 (recommended for publication) holds that an employer’s absenteeism policy of one discharge in the first 90 days of a probationary period does NOT qualify as per se misconduct.

In this case, the employee landed a job at a nursing home. Flu-like symptoms, however, led her to miss work, and the employer let her go because she missed a day of work during her 90-day probationary period. When the employee filed a claim for unemployment benefits, the Department found misconduct because she violated the employer’s zero-tolerance absenteeism policy. Per Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) (emphasis supplied):

Absenteeism by an employee on more than 2 occasions within the 120-day period before the date of the employee’s termination, unless otherwise specified by his or her employer in an employment manual of which the employee has acknowledged receipt with his or her signature . . .

The Department has concluded that this italicized portion of this statute allows employers to decide for themselves how many absences will constitute misconduct for unemployment purposes.

NOTE: This position is a stunning development in contradiction of the rest of unemployment law that presumes employee eligibility for unemployment benefits and establishes the economic importance of unemployment benefits for addressing macro-economic issues in the state’s economy. The Department’s stance means that employers gain the unilateral ability under this provision to determine for themselves when an employee commits misconduct for unemployment purposes.

The Commission reversed, holding that the more than two absences in 120 days provisions without notice sets a floor for a finding of misconduct. The employee was not responsible for her illness, the Commission noted, and so she missed work through no fault of her own — the classic formulation about when employees are eligible for unemployment benefits.

After a circuit court over-turned the Commission’s decision and agreed with the Department, the Commission appealed the case to the appeals court. The appeals court agreed with the Commission that its interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) was more reasonable than the Department’s. The appeals court in Beres at ¶¶18-20 explained:

The purpose of unemployment insurance benefits is to serve as a bridge for employees from one job to the next or “to cushion the effect of unemployment,” absent “actions or conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests.” Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5); Boynton Cab, 237 Wis. at 258-59.

An example illustrates the reasonableness of LIRC’s interpretation that Beres’ actions did not rise to the level to deny benefits. Assume Beres was found to be in a tavern during her scheduled shift and, when called, lied about being sick. At the opposite end of the spectrum, assume that Beres was involved in a serious car accident within two hours of the start of her shift due to no fault of her own and required hospitalization. In both of these examples, Beres would be in violation of [the employer’s] attendance policy. LIRC’s interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5) and (5)(e) allows an examination of the employee’s conduct in relation to both the employer’s policy as well as the policy that unemployment benefits should only be denied if the employee engages in actions constituting misconduct or substantial fault. The first example would likely qualify as misconduct under both § 108.04(5) and [the employer’s] written attendance policy, whereas the second example is a technical violation of [the employer’s] attendance policy, but is not an act of misconduct or substantial fault.

Employers are free to adopt a “zero-tolerance” attendance policy and discharge employees for that reason, but not every discharge qualifies as misconduct for unemployment insurance purposes. As our supreme court explained, “The principle that violation of a valid work rule may justify discharge but at the same time may not amount to statutory ‘misconduct’ for unemployment compensation purposes has been repeatedly recognized by this court.” Casey, 71 Wis.2d at 819-20. Similarly, this court found in Operton that employers have “the right to have high expectations of its employees and also [have] the right to discharge an employee for not meeting their expectations,” but we concluded that high expectations were insufficient to deny unemployment benefits. See Operton, 369 Wis.2d 166, ¶31.

A few additional comments about this decision are warranted. First, the appeals court gets the legislative history of this new absenteeism provision wrong. In Beres at ¶2, the appeals court describes the history this way:

Prompted by concerns within the employer community that eligibility for unemployment benefits was too generous, the legislature, in 2013, made wholesale changes to the unemployment benefit law, including modifying the absenteeism ineligibility criteria from “5 or more” absences without notice in a twelve-month period to “more than 2” absences without notice in a 120-day period, “unless otherwise specified by his or her employer in an employment manual.Compare Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5g)(c) (2011-12), with § 108.04(5)(e) (emphasis added). It is this final clause that is at the heart of the dispute.

In actuality, the concerns prompted by the employer community were only what the Department noted when it — on its own initiative — originated an extensive re-write of unemployment law. See D12-01. The Advisory Council actually rejected these proposed changes and instead put forward the following changes to the then existing absenteeism provisions in Wis. Stat. § 108.05(5g):

“(5g) DISCHARGE FOR FAILURE TO NOTIFY EMPLOYER OF ABSENTEEISM OR TARDINESS.

(a) If an employee is discharged for failing to notify his or her employer of absenteeism or tardiness that becomes excessive, and the employer has complied with the requirements of par. (d) with respect to that employee, the employee is ineligible to receive benefits until 6 weeks have elapsed since the end of the week in which the discharge occurs and the employee earns wages after the week in which the discharge occurs equal to at least 6 times the employee’s weekly benefit rate under s. 108.05 (1) in employment or other work covered by the unemployment insurance law of any state or the federal government. For purposes of requalification, the employee’s weekly benefit rate shall be the rate that would have been paid had the discharge not occurred.

(b) For purposes of this subsection, tardiness becomes excessive if an employee is late for 6 4 or more scheduled workdays in the 12 month 120 day period preceding the date of the discharge without providing adequate notice to his or her employer.

(c) For purposes of this subsection, absenteeism becomes excessive if an employee is absent for 5 2 or more scheduled workdays in the 12-month 120 day period preceding the date of the discharge without providing adequate notice to his or her employer.

(d) 1. The requalifying requirements under par. (a) apply only if the employer has a written policy on notification of tardiness or absences that:

a. Defines what constitutes a single occurrence of tardiness or absenteeism;

b. Describes the process for providing adequate notice of tardiness or absence, and, regarding tardiness, which gives the employee a reasonable time for providing notice and which at least allows the employee the opportunity to provide notice as soon as practically possible; and

c. Notifies the employee that failure to provide adequate notice of an absence or tardiness may lead to discharge.

2. The employer shall provide a copy of the written policy under subd. 1. to each employee and shall have written evidence that the employee received a copy of that policy.

3. The employer must have given the employee at least one warning concerning the employee’s violation of the employer’s written policy under subd. 1. within the 12 month period preceding the date of the discharge.

4. The employer must apply the written policy under subd. 1. uniformly to all employees of the employer.

(e) The department shall charge to the fund’s balancing account the cost of any benefits paid to an employee that are otherwise chargeable to the account of an employer that is subject to the contribution requirements under ss. 108.17 and 108.18 if the employee is discharged by that employer and par. (a) applies.

(em) If an employee is not disqualified under this subsection, the employee may nevertheless be subject to the disqualification under sub. (5). [general misconduct law]

As obvious, this proposal is not what ended up being enacted. SeeAdvisory Council Meeting — 1 April 2013” (council declined to adopt proposed substantial fault standard but recommended adding various examples of misconduct). The Department, however, never acted on the Advisory Council’s recommendations. Instead, on 29 May 2013 the Joint Finance Committee added the rejected substantial fault and misconduct standards to the budget bill that eventually became 2013 Wis Act 20. SeeAdvisory Council — 2 May 2013 meeting — and legislative actions today” and “JFC UI amendments” (JFC motion to amend budget bill included various unemployment financing provisions and rejected substantial fault, misconduct, and quit provisions; DWD drafted bills that eventually became 2013 Wis. Act 36 never included the Advisory Council’s agreed-upon misconduct and quit proposals). Accordingly, these changes to unemployment law went against the express recommendations of the Advisory Council.

Second, the appeals court reaches its holding with either a de novo or due weight standard of deference. Beres at n.5. The proposed elimination of LIRC will likely mean that the Department replaces the Commission to whom courts defer on unemployment matters.

Third, a dissent in Beres at ¶¶22-31 essentially accepts the Department’s position that employers get to enact their own misconduct standards per this new absenteeism provision.

Given this dissent and how this argument, if accepted, essentially would undo unemployment eligibility in Wisconsin, a certiorari petition from the Department to the Wisconsin Supreme Court is likely, and I suspect such a petition will be accepted.

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One thought on “Absenteeism decision excludes zero-tolerance policy as misconduct

  1. I’m no attorney (though I am a CPA who deals with the tax statutes on a regular basis) but I have to say my biggest problem with the dissent is what is left unsaid.

    The real question is, are there any mitigating circumstances–any at all–where DWD, or LIRC, or the circuit or appeals courts, have the authority to step in and say: “no, in this case, we’re not finding misconduct.” The majority opinion lays out an assumption in paragraph 19 of the decision that if “Beres were involved in a serious car accident within two hours of the start of her shift due to no fault of her own and required hospitalization,” it would not be misconduct or substantial fault.

    It’s not clear at all from Gundrum’s dissent that he would agree with that premise, because he doesn’t address the issue at all. It seems quite possible that he would rule that an employer would still be entitled to a finding of misconduct in even that situation as well.

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