Can you be denied unemployment benefits for “willful misconduct”?

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Pennsylvania’s unemployment statute provides that employees fired for “willful misconduct” are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Recently, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court found that breaking one company rule was enough to constitute “willful misconduct.”

In the case before the court, a truck driver hit a light standard while backing up, causing an undetermined amount of damage to the company truck and over $6,200 in damage to the light standard. The employer had a policy requiring its drivers to walk completely around their trucks before backing up. The fired employee admitted that he did not follow the rule. He acknowledged that he stopped to use a pay phone for business purposes and backed the truck up without walking around it.

The employee argued that his failure to walk around the truck was negligent, but was not willful since he did not make a deliberate decision to break the rule. The court disagreed. Noting that there was no “mistake” in the employee’s conduct, the court focused on the fact that the employee knew of the rule and simply disobeyed it.

According to the unemployment compensation law, employees may be denied benefits only where their conduct amounts to a willful disregard of their employer’s interests, a deliberate violation of work rules, a disregard of standards of behavior which an employer can rightfully expect from employees, or where their conduct constitutes negligence beyond ordinary negligence. This recent case clarifies the fact that when an employee is fired for disregarding a known work rule, the employee may be deemed to have engaged in willful misconduct and may be denied unemployment benefits.