Recently, I had a client come into my office for a consultation concerning unemployment benefits after she quit her job. The facts showed that her salary had been reduced, earned vacation time was taken from her and a fellow employee had been promoted and given her job title. It quickly became clear that the issue would be whether my client had voluntarily quit her job with good cause.
First, let’s look at the statute:
S.C. Code Ann. § 41-35-120. Disqualification for benefits.
An insured worker is ineligible for benefits for:
(1) Leaving work voluntarily. If the department finds he left voluntarily, without good cause, his most recent work prior to filing a request for determination of insured status or a request for initiation of a claim series within an established benefit year, with ineligibility beginning with the effective date of the request and continuing until he has secured employment and shows to the satisfaction of the department that he has performed services in employment as defined by Chapters 27 through 41 of this title and earned wages for those services equal to at least eight times the weekly benefit amount of his claim.
Good cause is determined on a case by case basis and based upon my research of reported cases was a difficult, if not impossible, standard to meet. In fact, I could not find a single case in South Carolina that held a employee had quit his/her job with good cause. I did find several examples of what “good cause” was not.
1. Quitting you job to care for children and/or family members is NOT good cause?
In Judson Mills v. South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Com’n., 204 S.C. 37, 28 S.E.2d 535 (S.C. 1944), a claimant quit her job at Judson Mills after a relative who provided care for her four children (ages two – nine) became unable to do so. The claimant was offered work on third shift but insisted she could only work first or second shift.
After an appeal to the Full Commission, it was determined the claimant had “voluntarily quit her work for good cause, and was genuinely unavailable for the third shift since it was necessary for her to be with her children at that time, but that since she was able and available for work on the first and second shifts, she was able and available for work within the purview of the act.” Id. at 37, 536.
Judge Oxner stated “I find nothing in the act itself or in the circumstances surrounding its passage to indicate an intention on the part of the Legislature to provide benefits for a worker compelled to give up his job solely because of a change in his personal circumstances.”
The Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed the decision of the Full Commission. The Court did not define what constituted “good cause”, but rather focused on if the claimant was “available for work”. This means that the claimant be capable and available to take the job, but that no job is available.” The Court held that because the claimant was not available to work third shift, she was “unable and unavailable for work within the purview of the South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act and therefore not eligible to receive unemployment compensation benefits”. Id.
2. Quitting your job because your spouse is transferred from one military based to another is NOT good cause?
In Stone Mfg. Co. v. South Carolina Employment Security Commission, 219 S.C. 239, 64 S.E.2d 644 (1951), the Court ruled that a wife who quit her job after he husband had been transferred from a military base in SC to a base in NC had left her job without good cause. The Court stated “that the ‘good cause’ contemplated by the section under consideration is one having some connection with, or relation to, claimant’s employment or employer.” Id. at 244, 645.
3. Quitting your job one day after receiving notice of a new pay structure without findong out what the effect of the pay structure would be is NOT good cause.
In Gibson v.Florence Country Club, 282 S.C. 384, 318 S.E.2d 365 (1984), the Court held that a computer operator at Florence Country Club was ineligible for benefits after she resigned within one day of receiving notice of a new salary structure.
Although there was conflicting testimony, the Court deferred to the Commissioner’s determination that the claimant was informed the effect of the new salary structure on her particular situation would result in her receiving the same, if not a higher amount of wages.
What the Gibson Court did not address is if the salary has actually decreased would Mrs. Gibson had been eligible for benefits? Rather, the facts of the case indicated Mrs. Gibson would have received the same, if not greater pay, and quit before learning the details of the new salary structure.
4. Quitting because of personal feelings regarding alleged unethical business practices of employer is NOT good cause.
In another case I found, at a hearing before a Commissioner Hearing Officer, a claimant testified to various occurrences and practices which she considered questionable as to their legality. The commission found that the claimant had quit work for “personal reasons” and the claimant appealed to the Circuit Court who reversed the decision, finding it was “clearly erroneous […] for the Full Commission of the Employment Security Commission to hold that [claimant] voluntarily separated from her employment […] and did so without good cause.”
The Supreme Court of South Carolina disagreed. The Court found dismissed the claimant’s position that she considered her employer’s business practices improper and immoral as a “a personal judgment which amounts to nothing more than a disagreement with management decisions” and that even though she feared the company engaged in illegal activity, such fears were “insufficient in light of the fact no such illegality was shown”.
So armed with all of this legal research, I informed my client that I believe she a meritorious claim, that I would be happy to represent her, and that I thought that was a strong possibility we would lose based on the case law. Despite my mediocre sales pitch, the client signed a retainer agreement.
A hearing was held before an Appeal Tribunal of the S.C. Dept. Of Employment and Workforce. At the hearing evidence and testimony of the reduced salary, eliminated vacation time and promotion of fellow employees was introduced. Leaving the hearing I felt that I had made a solid effort but was pessimistic about the chances of success.
I received the written decision of the Appeal Tribunal. My eyes immediately went to the section captioned “DECISION” where I read the words, “The Tribunal hereby holds the claimant eligible for benefits, upon a finding the claimant voluntarily quit employment with good cause.
Despite what I thought may be a Quixotic battle, it appears the quest for good cause may not be so impossible after all.