Q&A with Mike Lauderdale
‘Misconduct' redefined to help challenge unemployment claims
Q: I understand the Oklahoma Legislature recently enacted changes regarding the ability of a discharged employee to obtain unemployment benefits. Tell us about the changes.
A: Yes. Starting on Nov. 1, Oklahoma employees who file for unemployment after being terminated for cause will have significantly more difficulty qualifying for benefits due to a recent statutory amendment which provides a new legal definition of “misconduct.”
Q: What was the standard under the prior law?
A: While Oklahoma employers could challenge unemployment claims in situations where the employee was terminated for cause, proving such misconduct was difficult because the term “misconduct” was not defined by the Legislature. Accordingly, the courts crafted their own definition which placed a high burden upon the employer to meet in order to disqualify employees from receiving benefits even where the separation from employment was for cause. Basically, in order to prove “misconduct,” an employer was required to show that the reason for separation was an intentional or deliberate violation or disregard of standards of behavior or a high level of carelessness or negligence. Mere inefficiency, unsatisfactory conduct, failure of good performance as a result of inability or incapacity, inadvertencies or ordinary negligence in isolated instances, or good faith errors in judgment or discretion were not deemed to be “misconduct.”
Q: How has the definition for “misconduct” changed under the law?
A: The definition now includes, but is not limited to, unexplained absenteeism or tardiness, willful or wanton indifference to or neglect of the duties required; willful or wanton breach of any duty required by the employer; the mismanagement of a position of employment by action or inaction; actions or omissions that place in jeopardy the health, life or property of self or others; dishonesty; wrongdoing; violation of law; or a violation of a policy or rule adopted to ensure orderly work or the safety of self or others.
Q: What is the practical effect for employers regarding this statutory change?
A: The statutory definition of misconduct now makes it much easier for employers to defeat an employee's claim for unemployment benefits where an employee has been separated for cause. However, an employer still has the burden to prove the employee engaged in misconduct. Employers should be diligent in formulating and publishing their workplace policies to conform with this new law and, as always, properly document employee misconduct.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER