Eligibility for New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Benefits for Individual That Voluntarily Quit, Resigned or Left Work due to Good Cause Attributable to the Work

The courts have established legal standards that are to be applied in determining whether an individual is eligible for benefits where they left a job due to good cause attributable to the work such as in situations in which the employee was being harassed, subject to a hostile work environment or other situations in which the employee had good cause to leave the job. "[T]o further the remedial and beneficial purposes," of the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law, the courts have recognized that "the [Act] is to be construed liberally in favor of allowance of benefits." Yardville Supply Co. v. Board of Review, supra, 114 N.J. 371, 374; see also Provident Institution for Sav. V. Division of Employment Sec., 32 N.J. 585, 590 (1960). "The purpose of the [Compensation Act] is to provide some income for the worker earning nothing, because he is out of work through no fault or act of his own...." Battaglia v. Bd. of Review, 14 N.J.Super. 24, 27 (App.Div.1951); see also Yardville Supply Co. v. Bd. of Review, 114 N.J. 371, 375 (1989).

The Act protects not only workers who are involuntarily unemployed--those who are laid-off or terminated from their jobs by their employers--but also those who voluntarily quit their jobs for good cause attributable to their work. See Zubrycky v. ASA Apple, Inc., 381 N.J.Super. 162, 168, (App.Div.2005) ("The unemployment benefit law does not require that a plaintiff be either fired or constructively discharged in order to qualify for benefits." (citation omitted)).

The New Jersey Supreme Court has emphasized the determination of whether an individual left work without good cause attributable to the work in accordance with N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) requires a “consideration of all relevant factors”. See Frazee v. Board of Review, 207 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1953. The determination of whether good cause exists for an employee to leave a job, entitling the employee to unemployment benefits, requires a “discrete balancing and evaluation of all factors” rather than a “mechanistic approach”.

In determining whether the “good cause” was attributable to the work, the courts have looked to whether the problems arose “solely” from the personal circumstances of the worker, unrelated to an alteration in the terms or conditions of employment. See Self v. Board of Review, 182 N.J.Super. 361, rev’d. 91 N.J. 453 (1982). Moreover, an individual who leaves work for several reasons, one of which constitutes good cause attributable to such work, shall not be disqualified for benefits." See N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(d).

In Self, the court held that the Claimant’s lack of personal transportation to get to and from work did not constitute good cause attributable to the work sufficient to entitle the employees at issue to unemployment compensation benefits. In doing so, the court noted that the "employer [in Self] did nothing to increase the commuting problems of claimants" and therefore "the reason they were unable to get to work was not work-related, but personal." Id. at 460. On that basis, the court concluded that "the lack of transportation was not 'good cause attributable to' their employment within the purview of the statute." Id.

However, the court acknowledged that there could be circumstances in which the employer sets in motion a chain of events that leads to a separation of employment, thus qualifying that employee for benefits under the statute. Id. at 459-60. In support of that point, the court cited the decision in Bateman v. Board of Review, 163 N.J.Super. 518 (App. Div.1978) in which the Appellate Division stated that "a case could possibly be envisaged in which a sudden change in employment circumstances...would properly be regarded as a condition attributable to the work rather than to the employee." Self, supra, 91 N.J. at 459 (quoting Bateman, supra, 163 N.J.Super. at 521).

Applying these principles, in Rolka v. Board of Review, 332 N.J. Super 1 (App. Div. 2000), the court held that the employer’s relocation of the Company’s worksite while Claimant was out of work on maternity leave, thereby significantly increasing her commute and imposing a hardship on the employee, could have provided good cause for the employee to quit, entitling the employee to compensation benefits. The court held that Self requires "a discrete balancing and evaluation of all factors ... [when] the claimant has made a showing of substantially increased commuting distance by reason of the employer's relocation, with significant personal inconvenience attributable to the move." Id.

Accordingly, the court reversed the Board and remanded the matter to determine whether Rolka's "conduct in quitting her job was an objectively reasonable response to the employer's choice to relocate" or whether her "action was, instead, primarily motivated by personal factors which, however related to the move, were essentially independent of it." Id. at 6.

Subsequently, in Utley v. Board of Review, 194 N.J. 534 (2008), the Supreme Court emphasized that the “pragmatic approaches” taken in these cases demonstrates a necessity to require consideration of all relevant factors in deciding whether an employee has "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work." N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). Applying these principles, the court in Utley held that the worker was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits and had demonstrated good cause attributable to the work where, after working the same shift for 13 years, the employer suddenly changed his shift to a time which interfered with the worker’s ability to get public transportation to the job to accommodate the new schedule.

The court noted that the worker never had a problem with schedules until the employer changed the schedule to a time when buses were not available. The court noted that the new schedule altered the terms and conditions of employment, contrasting the situation to Self in which, unlike Utley's employer, the employer did nothing to alter the conditions of their employment that increased the difficulty of their getting to work.

In addressing Utley’s entitlement to unemployment compensation benefits on the basis that good cause existed for Utley to quit, the court acknowledged the Board’s observation that “had Utley quit at the time of his shift change, he would have been entitled to unemployment benefits.” Thus, the court emphasized that “it would be incongruous for Utley to have been eligible for unemployment benefits on the basis that good cause existed for him to quit at the time that the employer notified Utley of the change in schedule while denying him unemployment benefits simply because he did not immediately quit but remained unemployed for an additional nine months and later quit”. The court further acknowledged that even if Utley had not quit but rather had been fired because his new shift hours did not coincide with public transportation, there is “little question” that Utley would have been entitled to benefits. The court concluded that the source of Utley's transportation woes was his employer, who “initiated the chain of events that compelled him to quit his job.” Citing the decisions in Bateman and Rolka, the court held that Utley's case “called for a fact-sensitive analysis, not the mechanical approach taken by the appeals examiner, in assessing whether the reasons for Utley's departure from Myron were personal or work-related”. The court held that the Board engaged in a mistake of law in denying Utley’s claim for unemployment benefits.

It may be important to seek the advice of a New Jersey Unemployment Compensation attorney or lawyer with respect to determining whether your qualify for New Jersey Unemployment Compensation benefits.