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Utley v. Board of Review, Department of Labor

194 N.J. 534, 946 A.2d 1039 (2008)

UNEMPLOYMENT — Normally, transportation difficulties are the responsiblity of a worker and not good cause for leaving a job, but when an employer’s actions lead to a worker’s inability to get to or from work, the worker may be eligible for benefits.

An employee worked for a company until he left his job voluntarily. He could not drive because he was visually impaired and traveled by bus to and from his job. After thirteen years, the company changed his shift time, which ended after bus service was done for the night. For a period of time he was able to get a ride home from a supervisor and later from a coworker who worked the same shift. His assignment included mandatory overtime. The coworker was later relieved of her overtime requirement after which time she would sometimes wait at the job site for several hours to give the employee a ride home. There were other nights when the employee left with the coworker at the end of his shift without putting in the overtime so that he could get a ride home.

At one point, the coworker had to leave the country for two weeks to care for her ill father. The employee was unable to find another way to get home after work and his request to take some of his accrued vacation time during the period that the coworker was away was rejected. The employee’s supervisor became very critical of the employee and insisted that the employee stay for the overtime in spite of the fact that he would have been stranded with no ride home. The employee feared being terminated because he couldn’t stay until the end of his shift and voluntarily quit his job. The employee applied for, but was denied, unemployment benefits. At an unemployment hearing, his claim for benefits was again denied on the basis that he left his job voluntarily without good cause. He then brought his claim before the lower court, which affirmed the decision to deny his benefits. The lower court found that his inability to find transportation home from work was personal and not related to his job. The employee unsuccessfully appealed to the Appellate Division.

On further appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court first pointed out that unemployment compensation statutes were to be broadly construed in favor of allowing benefits and that workers who leaves a job because they know that they otherwise would have been discharged were still eligible for benefits. It also pointed out that transportation difficulties were the responsibility of a worker and not good cause for leaving a job, but that in circumstances where an employer’s actions led to a worker’s inability to get to or from work, the worker was eligible for benefits. Here, the Court found that the employee did not have any transportation difficulties until the company changed his shift, ordered him to work overtime, and denied him his requested vacation time. As a result, according to the Court he left his job for good cause. Therefore, it reversed the lower court’s decision to affirm the denial of the employee’s benefits.

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