The financial impact of substantial fault

A document available on this blog is cited by the Appeals Court in Operton v. LIRC, namely the original Department proposal for substantial fault — D12-01.

The appeals court observes at n.5 on p.6 of its decision that this document does not quite match the version of D12-01 supplied by the Commission in its briefing. Even though both versions are dated 24 October 2012, the copy produced by the Commission has an actual number for the fiscal impact of the proposed addition of substantial fault and the changes to misconduct — $19.2 million per year. The original D12-01 document introduced at the 27 November 2012 Advisory Council meeting only stated that the fiscal impact was yet to be determined. From my records of the Advisory Council meetings, it appears that the Department made this revision to D12-01 at the 21 February 2013 council meeting.

Obviously, the Department added this fiscal impact information without otherwise noting this change. Certainly, this number reveals a staggering impact on Wisconsin claimants when UI data from 2013 is considered. In the fourth quarter of 2013, the average weekly benefit claimants received in Wisconsin that year was $276.14, and those unemployment benefits lasted 15.9 weeks on average (see p. 64 of the data report). Multiplying these numbers together leads to a total benefit amount received of $4,390.63. Divide this number into the proposed $19.2 million fiscal impact from substantial fault, and 4,510 claimants end up being disqualified under these changes in unemployment. Each year.

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.