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.

The actual financial impact of substantial fault

Back in April 2016, I described the confusion about the two versions of the Department’s substantial fault proposals and calculated the financial impact of substantial fault based on that estimate.

But, there is actual data available for determining the financial impact of substantial fault. Wisconsin reports its handling of unemployment claims to the Employment & Training Administration of the United State Department of Labor. This federal agency then makes this data available to the public, and quarterly numbers regarding the number and outcome of non-monetary determinations is available via the ETA 207 series.

NOTE: Non-monetary determinations are those determinations that do NOT involve calculations to determine eligibility based on prior earnings or other kinds of monetary calculations. The data for non-monetary determinations includes determinations regarding discharges, voluntary leaving (i.e., quitting), and determinations regarding claimants’ able and available status, refusals of suitable work, adequate job search efforts, and other eligibility status issues. There is both a short description and a long description of this data.

Accordingly, this data can indicate specifically the kind of impact the substantial fault disqualification standard has on unemployment claims in the state of Wisconsin.

NOTE: The misconduct label for this data is used nationally because historically misconduct was the only disqualification standard used in discharge cases. But, starting in 2014, the misconduct data here for Wisconsin includes both misconduct and substantial fault determinations.

The substantial fault disqualification began to be applied by the Department in initial determinations issued on or after 5 January 2014. See 2013 Wis. Act 20 § 9351(1q) (new misconduct and substantial fault provisions “first apply with respect to determinations issued under section 108.09 of the statutes on January 5, 2014”).

Until the first quarter of 2014, the Department denied on average about 26% of all claimants who were discharged from their jobs. From the first quarter of 2014 until the latest available (the quarter ending June 2016), however, the number of discharge cases being denied jumped to 38.47% of all discharge determinations. This increase nearly doubled the number of denials from before 2014 — a stunning and remarkable jump in the number of claims being denied.

Percentage of discharge claims being denied

NOTE: The actual data for creating these charts is set forth in a table, WI Separation Data, compiled from the ETA 207 data.

This jump is even more shocking in light of the decline in discharge determinations since the start of 2014.

Number of Discharge Determinations over time From 2007 to the end of 2013, the number of discharge determinations averaged 19,462.43 per quarter. Not surprisingly, during the height of the last recession in 2009 and 2010, there were discharge determinations in some quarters that numbered over 21,000 or even 22,000. See Table: WI Separation Data. But, in general the number of discharge determinations per quarter hovered around 17,000 to 19,000. In the first quarter of 2014, however, the number of discharge determinations plummeted to under 14,000. And, the number of discharge determinations has continued to decline since then. From the start of 2014 to June 2016, the Department has issued on average only 12,605.50 discharge determinations per quarter.

NOTE: The total number of determinations being issued by the Department has not declined, however. Prior to 2014, the number of determinations issued per quarter averaged 58,945.25. From 2014 on, the average number of determinations being issued increased to 59,668.60 per quarter. As indicated in the table for WI Non-Separation Data, the number of determinations not connected to separation issues being issued jumped from 46.87% of all determinations per quarter prior to 2014 to 64.01% after 2014. In particular, much if not all of this increase in non-separation determinations concerns an approximately 26% increase in determinations regarding a claimant’s able and available status, a five-fold increase in determinations (from just over 3,000 determinations prior to 2014 to almost 16,000 determinations on average after the start of 2014) over a claimant’s failure to follow the Department’s reporting requirements, and a nearly 100-fold increase in determinations (around 13 cases per quarter prior to 2014 to nearly 1,200 per quarter after 2014) over a claimant’s failure to follow the Department’s job profiling services. In all three of these categories, the percentage of benefit denials has also jumped at least 10 percentage points on average after 2014.

It should also be noted that these non-separation denials generally do not disqualify a claimant for an extended period of time. For instance, a denial of benefits because of failing to report to Department-mandated profiling services or provide requested information is usually cured by reporting for those services or providing the needed information. As a result, the disqualifications from receiving unemployment benefits pursuant to these denials are generally short-term denials. A denial of benefits because of substantial fault or misconduct, on the other hand, lasts 7 weeks at a minimum and requires new earnings of 14X a claimant’s weekly benefit rate in order to re-qualify for unemployment benefits.

This decline in discharge determinations, however, does not indicate that the impact of substantial fault should be discounted in some way. Quarterly reports on each state’s unemployment system from the Employment & Training Administration indicate both the average weekly benefit rate for claimants during the previous twelve months and the average number of weeks unemployment benefits are being received during the last twelve months. The report for Wisconsin for the first quarter of 2015 indicates an average weekly benefit rate of $288.04 for the previous twelve months and an average duration for benefits of 14.8 weeks, leading to $4,262.99 in unemployment benefits at issue. Applying the pre-2014 25.99% denial ratio to the post-2014 12,605.50 discharge determinations that take place on average in each quarter means only 3,276.17 cases would be denied rather than the 4,852.00 being denied with substantial fault in place — a difference of 1,575.83 cases. Multiplying this number of cases by the $4,262.99 of unemployment benefits at issue leads to an amount of $6,717,747.53 per quarter being denied claimants currently under this new substantial fault standard. As substantial fault has now been in effect for ten quarters, the amount of unemployment benefits “saved,” or not paid to claimants, amounts to $67,177,475.32.

It is expected that substantial fault will also, on the whole, lead to employees filing fewer claims because claimants will learn how broad the substantial fault disqualification is and stop filing claims altogether. The data supports this trend. In the second quarter report in 2016, the weekly benefit rate for the last twelve months is $306.43, and the average duration of benefits for the previous year is 13.3 weeks. With these figures, the amount of benefits at issue is $4,075.52. Multiplying this amount by the 1,575.83 average number of cases per quarter denying unemployment benefits to claimants because of substantial fault leads to an amount of $6,422,326.68 per quarter being denied to claimants and a ten quarter amount of $64,223,266.82. As a result, the range of lost benefits because of substantial fault is between $67 and $64 million.

NOTE: The Department’s original estimate of $19.2 million per year, after 2.5 years, amounts to $48.4 million — approximately $15-$20 million less than what the actual data reveal.

So, even as fewer and fewer discharged employees are filing claims for unemployment benefits, the new substantial fault standard that become effective in 2014 is leading to thousands of claimants being denied millions in unemployment benefits.

Employer UI taxes declining because more UI claims being denied

Wisconsin employers are having their unemployment tax rates slashed in 2017 because the fund from which unemployment benefits is reaching ever higher solvency metrics. The Walker administration is heralding this news here and here.

Understandably, there are two possible explanations for what is going on with the state’s unemployment fund. The state’s unemployment funds are positive because either job growth is booming or because fewer folks are claiming benefits despite NOT having jobs.

Is job growth booming in Wisconsin?

The July state jobs report reveals that job growth in Wisconsin continues to be anemic. This report indicates that, initially, in July 2016 5,000 private-sector jobs were added to Wisconsin payrolls. But, June 2016 numbers for private-sector job growth were revised downward, from 10,900 to 5,600. This loss of 5,300 jobs from the June report means that the initial number for July does not even get the state back to what was first reported for June 2016.

Neither does the quarterly data offer any better news. From March 2015 to March 2016, the quarterly data indicates that the state added 37,432 jobs during that time frame. But, this number is a few thousand less than what was reported for the March 2015 to March 2015 time frame in the July 2015 jobs report: 39,652 private-sector jobs.

So, without adding new jobs to the state’s economy, the decline in unemployment claims must be coming from fewer folks claiming unemployment benefits. In two bullet points, the July 2016 jobs report actually acknowledges this development.

  • Year 2016 initial UI claims are running at their lowest level since 1989.
  • Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years.

But, the question remains: if jobs are not being created, why are claims now so low?

Why are unemployment claims so low?

Actual claims data is available from ETA 207, Non-monetary Determinations Activities Report. See DOLETA data downloads generally for UI data. The 207 data series has all determinations issued by a state compiled on a quarterly basis going back several decades until the most recently completed quarter, June 2016.

Here are some charts from that data for Wisconsin starting in the first quarter of 2007 through the second quarter of 2016.

Denial rates for all initial determination issued

This chart shows that most initial determinations issued by the Department lead to the denial of unemployment benefits. But, starting in the first quarter of 2014, the denial rate for initial determination jumped markedly. Prior to 2014, 59.90% of all initial determinations denied benefits to claimants. Since the start of 2014, 77.45% of all initial determinations issued by the Department have been to deny unemployment benefits. In other words, currently only one of four initial determinations being issued by the Department allows unemployment benefits, and three out of four initial determinations deny unemployment benefits in some way.

Keep in mind that these numbers are based on the initial determinations issued by the Department in regards to a new unemployment claim. In most states, these determinations would consist almost entirely of separation determinations — whether claimants are disqualified because their discharge was their fault in some way or they lacked good cause for quitting their jobs. In Wisconsin, these separation decisions are only a part of what the Department decides. And, increasingly separation decisions are becoming a smaller and smaller part of what the Department does in disqualifying claimants.

Ratio of Separation IDs to All IDs

Here, initial determination concerning separation issues (i.e., quits and discharges) were around 60% of all initial determinations until 2009, when they declined and hovered around 50% of all initial determinations until the first quarter of 2014. At that point, the percentage of separation initial determinations being issued by the Department plummeted to 40% of all initial determinations. In the last two quarters of 2015, the number of separation initial determinations fell again to under 30% of all initial determinations. So at present, less than 30% of the initial determinations being issued by the Department concern separation issues related to a discharge or a quit. And, since most of these other determinations (and probably all of them given the analysis below) are denying unemployment benefits, many of these probably include some kind of concealment allegation, given the Department’s push to allege concealment against claimants.

In regards to denying claimants unemployment benefits, the Department consistently denied about 26% of all claimants who were discharged from their jobs until the first quarter of 2014.

Percentage of discharge claims being denied

From the first quarter of 2014 until the latest, however, the number of discharge cases being denied jumped to 38.47% of all discharge determinations. This increase nearly doubled the number of denials from before 2014 — a stunning and remarkable jump in the number of claims being denied.

The magnitude of this jump is seen when it is compared the number of quit denials over this same time frame.

Percentage of quit claims being denied

Here, a slight increase in denials occurs in the first quarter of 2014. But, this increase is part of a general increase in denial rates that appears to have started in the second half of 2010. So, while denial rates for those quitting their jobs are high and gradually increasing, there is no sudden or striking shift in denial rates in quit cases at any one point in time.

Now, consider that in the last two years only about 30% of all initial determinations concern separation issues and that only 1 out of 4 initial determinations is allowing unemployment benefits at all. In this light, it appears that the only initial determinations right now allowing benefits are the discharge and quit separation determinations that are NOT denying benefits. Everything else the Department is doing is to deny unemployment benefits to claimants.

What these numbers reveal is that most folks applying for unemployment benefits are being denied those benefits, that essentially the only folks qualifying for unemployment benefits are those laid off from their jobs by their employers, and that numerous denials of unemployment benefits have nothing to do with separation issues. These non-separation initial determinations most likely are part of the Department’s program integrity efforts and most likely lead to charges of unemployment concealment, especially under the Department’s new strict liability standard for concealment.

So, unemployment claims and benefits are at record lows in the state because the state is making it difficult to impossible for claimants to receive benefits and charging the few that collect unemployment benefits with unemployment concealment. Essentially, employers are paying unemployment taxes for a benefit almost no one is using. Pretty soon, folks will start calling for eliminating the unemployment system entirely, as who wants to pay a tax that does nothing.

UPDATE (14 Sept. 2016): Fixed links so that a click on a chart brings up a full-sized version.

Substantial fault and misconduct principles from unemployment law to come to workers’ compensation

A Department-sponsored bill from the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council, SB536, will make the following changes to workers’ compensation law:

Employees suspended or terminated for misconduct or substantial fault This bill provides that an employer is not liable for temporary disability benefits during an employee’s healing period if the employee is suspended or terminated from employment due to misconduct, as defined in the unemployment insurance law, or substantial fault, as defined in the unemployment insurance law, by the employee connected with the employee’s work.

The unemployment insurance law defines “misconduct” as action or conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests as is found in 1) deliberate violation or disregard of standards of behavior that an employer has a right to expect of his or her employees; or 2) carelessness or negligence of such degree or recurrence as to manifest culpability, wrongful intent, or evil design in disregard of the employer’s interests or to show an intentional and substantial disregard of an employer’s interests or of an employee’s duties and obligations to his or her employer.

The unemployment insurance law defines “substantial fault” as acts or omissions of an employee over which the employee exercised reasonable control that violate reasonable requirements of the employee’s employer, but not including minor infractions, inadvertent errors, or failure to perform work due to insufficient skill, ability, or equipment.

In other words, temporarily disabled employees lose their workers’ compensation benefits when they lose jobs because of misconduct or substantial fault (which by the way also cancels out their unemployment benefits). Given this two-fer, employers will have an extra incentive for discharging employees who suffer a temporary workplace injury. Not only are the employees disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, but they also lose their workers’ compensation benefits. Given how easy it is to find substantial fault (the Commission has found mere negligence to qualify as substantial fault), workers’ compensation benefits for temporary injuries are likely to become exceptionally rare under this new provision. YIKES!

NOTE: As seen in the 21 October 2015 minutes of the advisory council meeting in which this change — Management Proposal 11 — was discussed, these concerns about the impact of this disqualification were not new. In these minutes, however, these concerns were made in regards to misconduct only. Substantial fault was not discussed.

Substantial fault equals negligence

In just two weeks time (a record turnaround), the Labor and Industry Review Commission issued a decision in the substantial fault case I just posted about a few days ago.

The decision deserves careful reading. There is no surprise here that the Commission found no misconduct. In failing to secure a wheelchair passenger, the Commission explained, the “employee did not willfully disregard this responsibility; it was an act of negligence” and that this “negligence was not of a severity to willful disregard of the employer’s interests.”

But, the Commission did find that this negligence constituted substantial fault. The Commission maintained in this decision: (1) that the reasonableness of the employer’s requirements is established as articulated (that is, on its face) and (2) that the employee has to demonstrate that the action at issue was beyond his or her reasonable control. For the Commission, the employee failed to satisfy this requirement. “The evidence does not show that the employee’s failure was a minor infraction, that the error was merely an inadvertence, of that she lacked sufficient skill, ability or equipment to perform her responsibility.”

There are two problems here with the Commission’s reasoning. First, the Commission is placing the burden of proof on claimants to demonstrate they satisfy one of the three caveats to avoid a finding of substantial fault rather than having employers first show that the action at issue truly is something the employee should be expected to have reasonable control over. Second, and more troubling, the Commission is holding here that a negligent act disqualifies someone from unemployment benefits. As a result, this decision could possibly threaten the tax credits employers currently qualify for.

There are a few but very important federal requirements that state unemployment systems must satisfy in order for the employers in those states to qualify for tax credits. See 6 U.S.C. § 3302 (federal tax credits for employer’s contributions to state unemployment funds). One of these requirements is that:

(10) compensation shall not be denied to any individual by reason of cancellation of wage credits or total reduction of his benefit rights for any cause other than discharge for misconduct connected with his work, . . .

6 U.S.C. § 3304(a).

If the Secretary of Labor finds that a state is not meeting this requirement, then that lack of compliance means the tax credit goes away. So, the Commission, by holding that substantial fault is in actuality substantially less stringent than the misconduct standard, may have effectively ended a vital tax savings for employers. For a measure originally intended to reduce the unemployment benefits being paid out, the new substantial fault standard may now cost employers much more through higher taxes.

Memo on DWD proposed UI changes

January 2013

Here is the lengthy (50 pp.) analysis of proposed changes DWD submitted to the Advisory Council in late November/early December 2012 regarding the state’s unemployment law. The proposed changes were substantial and ended up for the most part being adopted. This memo was completed in early January 2013.

UPDATE (17 Sept. 2016): Note that copies of this memorandum were also provided to members of the Advisory Council and posted on the labor and employment listserv for the Wisconsin bar.