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Your handbook doesn’t decide unemployment comp

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that employees don’t automatically become eligible for unemployment compensation benefits just because their employer didn’t follow its own progressive disciplinary policy outlined in the employee handbook.

The court said what counted was whether the employee engaged in misconduct—not whether the employer followed its own rules.

Recent case: Vintage Place, a group home for troubled youth, required employees such as Ronald Stagg to notify a supervisor at least two hours before the start of a shift if they were going to be absent or late. The employee manual included a five-step disciplinary procedure for absenteeism and tardiness, starting with an oral warning for initial unexcused absences and progressing to discharge on the fifth incident.

It didn’t take Stagg long to amass three incidents. He was fired when he was 45 minutes late because he overslept, his fourth case of tardiness.

Stagg applied for unemployment compensation benefits, arguing he was terminated through no fault of his own since he thought the fourth absence would mean just a suspension as outlined in the employee handbook.

After several appeals, the Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed. It said that what mattered was whether the behavior that got Stagg fired was employee misconduct. Because employers have the right to expect employees will work when scheduled, missing work was misconduct.

The court said focusing on what the employer did was not appropriate in an unemployment compensation case like this one. (Stagg v. Vintage Place, No. A09-949, Supreme Court of Minnesota, 2011)

Final note: The court also noted that Stagg was essentially making a contract claim, arguing that his employer was required to follow the handbook. The Justices said an unemployment comp case is not the forum for deciding whether a handbook is a contract.

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