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QUITING WORK TO CARE FOR CHILDREN DISQUALIFIES CLAIMANT FROM RECEIVING NEW JERSEY UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed a Board of Review decision disqualifying a claimant from receiving New Jersey unemployment benefits finding that the claimant voluntarily left her employment without good cause attributable to the work.

In the matter Damaris Medina v. Board of Review Department of Labor and the City of Camden, the claimant was denied New Jersey unemployment benefits as a result of quitting her job because her employer would not accommodate her request to change her work hours so she could drive her children to school and still get to work on time. Ms. Medina was employed in the position of a clerk from August 12, 2002 through March 3, 2010 with the City of Camden. For the approximately the first six years of her employment, Ms. Medina’s shift began at 8:30 a.m. In June, 2008, the City of Camden changed her start time to 9:00 a.m. In June, 2009, Ms. Medina requested that she return to a shift be changed to 9:00 a.m. because the earliest that she could drop her kids to school was 8:15 a.m. and this did not give her enough time to get to work at 8:30 a.m.

The City of Camden denied Ms. Medina’s request and began disciplining her for arriving at work a half-hour late each day. Eventually, Ms. Medina retained a New Jersey employment lawyer to represent her in the employment dispute. Ms. Medina’s attorney met with representatives of the City of Camden, which resulted in Ms. Medina and the City of Camden entering into a settlement agreement. The terms of settlement agreement included that Ms. Medina would be involuntarily separated from her employment effective March 3, 2010 and the City of Camden would not contest her unemployment benefits application and that the City of Camden would cooperate with her in connection with unemployment benefits application.

Despite the settlement agreement, the Deputy disqualified Ms. Medina from receiving New Jersey unemployment benefits finding that she left work voluntarily. New Jersey Unemployment Compensation law requires that a claimant show that he or she voluntarily quit work for “good cause attributable to the work” and that “good cause” will exist if the cause is “sufficient to justify an employer’s voluntarily leaving the ranks of the employed and joining the ranks of the unemployed.” Applying this standard, the Deputy found the having to quit a job because the employer would not accommodate an employee’s children’s school schedule may be valid, but is a personal reason. Because they found that Ms. Medina’s reason for leaving her job was personal, it did not constitute good cause attributable to the work.

The Appellate Division noted that although the City of Camden did not contest Ms. Medina’s application for New Jersey unemployment benefits, the decision as to her eligibility must be based upon law, not a private agreement between an employer and an employee. This case reminds unemployment benefits claimants that they cannot enter into agreements with their former employers to receive unemployment benefits when the claimant would otherwise be ineligible to receive them. Even if an employer is willing to agree to not challenge a former employee’s application for unemployment benefits, the Department of Labor and New Jersey Courts make the final determination and that the determination will be based upon New Jersey Unemployment Compensation law.