Claimant Denied Pennsylvania Unemployment Benefits for Walking Off Job Without Voicing COVID-19 Concerns
Fear of COVID-19 was not a valid reason for walking off the job, according to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania’s recent decision. Shortly after the lockdown orders were issued by Gov. Tom Wolf in March 2020, a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) was directed to work on a particular unit within a nursing home. She was instructed to wear an N95 mask, but the CNA claims one was not provided to her. Based on rumors that there were COVID-19 cases on the unit, the CNA feared that she would contract or spread COVID-19 as a result of exposure on the unit.
The CNA refused to go to the assigned unit. Without informing her supervisor, she left the nursing home 12 minutes into her scheduled shift. The nursing home’s Assistant Director of Nursing had no opportunity to discuss the CNA’s concerns because the CNA had left the facility before she could be reached. As a result of her abrupt departure, the CNA’s assigned unit was understaffed. The nursing home considered the CNA’s conduct to be insubordinate and determined that it constituted job abandonment.
Following her termination, the CNA filed for unemployment compensation benefits (Benefits). The CNA was denied Benefits because her conduct was found to have fallen below the standard an employer would reasonably expect from an employee.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court observed that leaving work early without giving an employer notice is a form of absenteeism that may rise to the level of willful misconduct such that Benefits may not be awarded. The Court opined that even if no rule specifically requires an employee to provide notice and a reason before leaving a scheduled shift, such conduct falls below the standard normally expected by an employer. Moreover, refusing to follow a work directive can rise to the level of willful misconduct.
Since the nursing home was deprived of the opportunity to provide an N95 mask or otherwise address the CNA’s concerns, the Commonwealth Court considered the CNA’s conduct to be neither justifiable nor reasonable, and the denial of Benefits was affirmed.
The pandemic thrust employers — especially health care providers — into unprecedented circumstances. However, this decision affirms that employers can expect reasonable and justifiable behavior from their employees even in the midst of a pandemic. While COVID-19 cases remain low for much of Pennsylvania, employers should consider the following reminders:
Maintain an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Explain that if there are safety concerns related to COVID-19, those concerns should be addressed with an immediate supervisor or other designated individual(s).
Inform managers and staff how PPE can be obtained and how to raise concerns about COVID-19 safety.
Employees should not abandon their assigned job, tasks, or workstation without first discussing their concerns with a supervisor.