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.

SSDI benefits and unemployment

In 2012, the Department of Workforce Development introduced numerous proposed changes to unemployment law, and one of those proposals, D12-05, sought to ban recipients of Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) from receiving unemployment benefits.

After back and forth between the members of the Advisory Council and the Department, a new version of the Department’s proposed ban on unemployment benefits when receiving SSDI benefits was drafted, supported by the council, and passed by the legislature.

In 2014, however, the Labor and Industry Review Commission found that the actual statutory language did not accomplish what the Department intended and held that the ban on receiving unemployment benefits only applied for the week in which a person’s monthly SSDI benefits were paid. Since then, the Department has appealed each and every Commission decision allowing claimants receiving SSDI benefits to continue receiving some unemployment benefits (about eleven such cases in total). An amicus brief being filed in some of these circuit court cases has the details about these events and issues.

This amicus brief also demonstrates the fundamental flaw in the Department’s push to keep SSDI recipients from receiving unemployment benefits, namely the Department’s presumption that SSDI recipients do not work and leave the labor market. As detailed in this amicus brief, not only do folks receiving SSDI benefits continue to work in numerous kinds of jobs, they are also encouraged to do so.

Undeterred, the Department explained at the 19 February 2015 Advisory Council meeting that a proposal for eliminating all unemployment eligibility for those receiving SSDI benefits was being developed. At the 19 March 2015 council meeting, the Department presented this new language in D15-01 to make the ban on unemployment eligibility apply to all weeks SSDI recipients receive unemployment benefits.

To establish why this new and total ban was needed, the Department informed council members that in January 2014, when the first ban on unemployment eligibility for SSDI recipients was instituted, 687 claimants were immediately disqualified because they notified the Department that month that they were receiving SSDI benefits. This 687 number bears repeating: the SSDI ban as implemented by the Department stopped unemployment benefits for nearly 700 claimants. And, only eleven or so claimants who appealed their cases to the Commission managed to retain some eligibility.

The Department’s recently released Financial Outlook Report at p.34 shows the financial impact this ban on unemployment benefits for SSDI recipients has had: nearly $1.5 million annually is not being paid to claimants based on the work they have performed the previous year.

Staffers in the Secretary’s office of DWD recently asked the Commission to identify possible legal problems in the Department’s unemployment proposals. The Commission did so, and reported to the Advisory Council the problems with the Department’s SSDI proposals arising from the Commission’s legal analysis. The Commission’s memo reveals three basic problems with the Department’s SSDI efforts:

  • a total ban on unemployment eligibility discriminates against the disabled
  • a ban on unemployment eligibility because of disability is inconsistent with other provisions of unemployment law
  • a complete ban on unemployment eligibility is far too broad relative to the income and eligibility of many if not most individual claimants

In response, at the April 2015 council meeting the Department lambasted the Commission’s memorandum as driven by a political agenda rather than legal analysis. Scott Manley, WMC vice-president, chimed in to endorse the Department’s criticism of the Commission’s “political” opinions. These conclusions were especially remarkable when the Commission’s memorandum represents the first time that council members were presented with the Kluczynski decision at issue in these SSDI cases.

The Advisory Council, however, apparently accepted the Department’s conclusion about SSDI benefits. After the members caucused, they indicated that they approved of the newly proposed statutory language in D15-01 and that the Department could go ahead and present this proposal to the legislature.