Understanding "Willful Misconduct" In Unemployment Claims

All along, your employer has deducted a little bit of your paycheck every week to pay for unemployment benefits. You thought that you were covered, so when you were fired for a making a mistake you filed for your benefits, only to be told that you weren't eligible due to "willful misconduct." What exactly does that mean?

Willful Misconduct Takes Effort

Generally speaking, there are several types of behavior that gets tagged as "willful misconduct," whether fairly or unfairly:

  1. Breaking a work rule, like the attendance policy or what you're allowed to view on the internet, over and over again. 
  2. Breaking a series of work rules, even if you never broke any more than once. For example, you're late one day, take excessive breaks the next, and are then caught on the phone with a personal call to your girlfriend or boyfriend when you're supposed to be with a customer.
  3. Engaging in a single, purposefully bad act, like theft, being intoxicated on the job, or cursing at your supervisor. 
  4. Engaging in a single act that is "grossly negligent" and is dangerous or detrimental to the business. Being caught sleeping on your night watchman job, for example, would be considered grossly negligent.
  5. Refusing to take a drug or alcohol test, in some states, is considered willful misconduct.

A Single Incident Might Not Be Enough

It's important to be aware of the idea of the "single incident" rule. The general idea is that an isolated, unintentional act usually isn't enough to disqualify someone from receiving unemployment. While sleeping on your nightwatchman job, even once, is enough to get you fired, forgetting to lock a supply cabinet isn't, even though it might have left the cabinet open to theft.

If you were fired due to a careless mistake, but you can show that you'd never been reprimanded for such a problem before, were not a habitual problem employee, or that the rule you broke had never been communicated to you, you may still be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In some cases "willful misconduct" is the pretext for firing you for poor performance. Employers are aware that if you're fired for performance issues you can still collect unemployment. In an effort to avoid paying, it's not uncommon for an employer to manipulate a situation so that an employee ends up violating a company rule or feels that he or she has no choice but to quit rather than comply.

Some employers will even suddenly and arbitrarily enforce a rule that you weren't aware existed, or have never seen enforced prior to your firing. In some cases, the rule simply won't even make sense in the context of the situation.

If you were fired for a single mistake that wasn't intentional and you don't believe it rises to the level of "grossly negligent," don't allow your unemployment benefits to be denied due to willful misconduct without a fight. Also, if your employer created a situation to justify your firing for "willful misconduct," as a pretext for firing you for poor performance or some other issue, you can fight the denial of your unemployment. Contact an attorney who handles unemployment appeals and hearings, such as Law Office of Matthew J Brier, for a consultation about the specifics of your claim.