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Commonwealth Court Decision Regarding “Necessitous and Compelling” Requirements Under Pennsylvania Law

August 21st, 2019

By Lauren M. Hoye

Last month, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, in a case called Devon Preparatory School v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, ruled that a former employee of Devon Preparatory School (School) was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits after she voluntarily quit her job, where the School told her that her pay, duties, and vacation time were being drastically changed. The decision, issued by Judge Michael Wojcik, affirmed the decision of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review.

By way of background, it is possible to collect unemployment compensation benefits in Pennsylvania after quitting your job. However, you must prove not only that you had a “necessitous and compelling” reason to quit, but also that you acted with common sense and made reasonable efforts to preserve your employment prior to quitting. A necessitous and compelling reason to quit can be a substantial and unilateral change to the terms and conditions of your job.

In August 2017, the claimant in Devon Preparatory School v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review resigned from employment after being told that her position was being changed from a salaried position to an hourly position, that she would lose three weeks of vacation, that she would be required to work in the summer when she previously had not been required to, and that she would be responsible for additional duties in her position, even though she was not familiar with those duties and/or jobs. While the School contended these changes were not sufficiently substantial and unilateral to constitute a necessitous and compelling reason to quit, the primary issue in the case was whether the claimant had made sufficient reasonable efforts to maintain the employment relationship prior to quitting.

The claimant was first informed of the changes by the Director of Operations, who stated to the claimant: “This is how is how it’s going to go for you,” Who then went on to explain the changes to claimant’s pay, duties, vacation, and her schedule. At a meeting the next day, the claimant and other employees were told by the employer that the changes would apply to all employees, no matter what their tenure. The claimant was then told she would be required to attend an individual meeting shortly thereafter to discuss her new hourly rate. When she was contacted to schedule this meeting, the claimant declined the meeting, and asked what her rate would be. The Director of Operations refused to tell her, and told her she would have to come to the meeting. Instead, the claimant submitted a letter of resignation. The claimant testified that she did not discuss her objections of these changes with the Director of Operations or other supervisors because in the past, the Director of Operations never allowed her to ask questions; instead she would say that these issues were not open to discussion. The claimant could not discuss her concerns with Human Resources because the Director of Operations also oversaw Human Resources. The claimant also testified that there was no point to discussing her objections with other supervisors for various reasons.

Following a hearing, the Unemployment Compensation Referee found that while the changes demanded by the School may have provided the claimant with good cause to quit, she did not sufficiently discuss her concerns with the School prior to quitting. The claimant appealed to the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, which reversed, finding that while the claimant did not discuss her concerns with the School prior to quitting, doing so would have been futile.

The School appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, seeking to have the Order of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review reversed. The School contended that: (a) the changes made to the claimant’s job were sufficiently substantial to warrant a finding of good cause for quitting; and (b) the claimant did not act with common sense or make a reasonable effort to preserve her employment before she quit, as required under the law. The Commonwealth Court disagreed with the School on both contentions.

First, the Commonwealth Court held that the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review had properly concluded that the School made substantial and unilateral changes to the claimant’s working conditions. On the issue of reasonable efforts, the School argued that the claimant did not make reasonable efforts to preserve the employment relationship because she refused to attend the meeting at which she would be advised of her hourly rate. The Court noted that “common sense and reasonable effort includes informing a supervisor or other management of dissatisfaction… however, an employee may be excused from bringing her concerns to the employer if the employee reasonably believes that doing so would be futile.” Here, held the Court, in light of the School’s announcement that the changes would be imposed on all employees, it would have been futile for the claimant to voice her concerns. Accordingly, she was excused from taking her concerns to the School because she reasonably believed that reporting them would have been futile.

This decision by the Commonwealth Court underscores that in the voluntary quit area of the Pennsylvania unemployment compensation law, there may be situations where making reasonable efforts to preserve one’s job is futile. If you have questions about unemployment compensation benefits, please contact attorney Lauren Hoye at (215) 656-3687.

 

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