Workers “Forced” to Quit Get Unemployment Benefits

Posted October 6, 2011 in Labor and Employment by David Baarlaer

Do you remember the 80’s song, "We’re not going to take it" by Twisted Sister? You might think it when your job is getting to you, but quitting might not be an option – at least until you have another one lined up. Is there a time when you get fed up enough to quit and collect unemployment benefits?

It could be a possibility when you quit because your employer makes your working conditions so bad you have no choice but to quit.

  • A convenient store owner created a hostile work environment causing workers to quit
  • Workers who quit in these circumstances may be entitled to unemployment benefits
  • When possible, it’s best to talk to an attorney before you quit if you plan to file for unemployment benefits


Going Too Far to Make Workers Follow the Rules

William Ernst owns several convenience stores in Iowa. He had a problem with his store workers not following certain rules, such as talking on their cell phones while working, being out of uniform, etc. He planned on increasing the use of mystery shoppers to root-out the offenders.

Also, as part of the plan, he devised a contest. Workers were asked to guess which employee/cashier would be the next to get fired. The worker who guessed correctly would win $10. (Take a look at the "contest rules" (PDF), according to court papers).

Misty Shelsky, a cashier who describes Ernst as the "boss from hell," her manager and several other employees quit after learning about the contest. Shelsky later filed for unemployment benefits. Ernst fought the claim because in Iowa, as in practically every other state, workers can’t get benefits if they quit voluntarily, like Shelsky did.

Shelsky won. In Iowa, and, again, in practically every other state, a worker who voluntarily quits for a good reason or "good cause" created by the employer, can get unemployment benefits. "Good cause" in Iowa (PDF), and elsewhere, includes "intolerable or detrimental working conditions." According to the judge (PDF) who finally decided that Shelsky was entitled to benefits, Ernst created intolerable working conditions, or a "hostile work environment by suggesting employees turn on each other for a minimal monetary prize."

Even if the prize had been $100 or more, the judge likely would have ruled the same because the contest pitted employees against each other.

What Cause is "Good Cause?"

In Iowa, the test for "good cause" and "intolerable or detrimental working conditions" is whether a reasonable person would have quit under the circumstances. It’s similar to the test often used in constructive discharge cases. Christopher M. AdishianAs explained by Christopher M. Adishian (@algpc) of the California-based Adishian Law Group, "In California, the test for a constructive discharge is ‘whether a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes and faced with the alleged intolerable conditions would have felt compelled to resign.’"

In either case, the "intolerable conditions" are usually the same. Intolerable conditions may include many things, explains Mr. Adishian, such as when an employer "creates false requirements in order for employee to keep her job, a supervisor continually "yelling and screaming" unfair and harsh criticism along with threats to fire, or an extended "campaign" to get an employee fired."

Mr. Adishian advises that the, "Factors to be considered include demotion, salary reduction, reduction in job responsibilities, reassignment to menial work, reassignment to work under junior person, employer harassment and even offers of retirement or continued employment on less favorable terms." Any one of these could create intolerable work conditions.

Employers Beware, Employees Be Ready

Employers need to keep in mind how easy it can be to create intolerable working conditions and a slew of legal problems along with them. After all, each year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handles tens of thousands of charges filed by workers against their employers.

Employees need to be ready to stand up for their rights, too. While unemployment compensation is designed to make sure workers don’t casually quit jobs just to collect benefits, the laws realize that workers shouldn’t feel trapped in intolerable working conditions.

It’s best to talk to attorney before quitting, though. An attorney can help you figure out if you truly have "good cause" to quit so you’re eligible for unemployment benefits, and can tell you about other legal remedies you may have.

Also, you may not get benefits even if you quit for good cause. In some states, you have to tell your employer you’re quitting before you quit because of intolerable conditions – it gives the employer a chance to make things right. Iowa doesn’t have this requirement.

When jobs are scarce and millions have no work, do whatever you can to get the unemployment benefits you need to support yourself and your family.

Dave Baarlaer writes for

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