Nursing License Discipline, Willful Misconduct, and Unemployment Compensation

The first battle in nursing, work-place disciplinary cases is the unemployment compensation fight. Even though nursing positions are in high demand, unemployment compensation bridges the gap until new employment is found. Here, employers lob their first volley of demeaning, demoralizing, and casting blame accusations against their former nurses.

The unemployment case commences with job termination based upon allegations of a nurse violating arcane, untrained, work place rules. In reality, the employer is seeking a scapegoat to protect itself from a potential but yet-to-be filed negligence claim.  As a hard working nurse, the rule violation is typically baseless (unsubstantiated by the actual facts of the work place circumstance). Once fired, the nurse must file for unemployment compensation to pay bills.  The Hospital/employer responds by “hanging the employee out to dry,” alleging the employee intentional or deliberate work rule violations warrant termination.

On October 16, 2013 the Commonwealth Court this fact pattern in Patricia Phillips v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review. In that matter, the employer contested operating room nurse Patricia Phillips’ eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits. Ms. Phillips was a circulating operating room nurse responsible for ferrying “labeled” biopsy and operating room specimens to the pathology lab for testing during the operation.

Similar to many other workplace circumstances, Ms. Phillips was on leave for several months prior to this specific incident that led to her termination. Upon returning to work she sought additional training in the new operating room specimen cataloging procedures. Due to the understaffed and overworked nature of operating room nursing staff, she was not given an opportunity to receive the full training on new specimen cataloging procedures.

Unfortunately, within one week of her return to work, after a relatively complex surgical procedure, she delivered specimens to the lab that were not properly identified. Upon completion of the post-operation briefing, the oversight was discovered and the specimens were properly identified. However, the employer terminated Phillips’ employment. The hospital claimed a violation of workplace specimen labeling rules for which Phillips was aware and the violation of that rule alone automatically resulted in her ineligibility for benefits.

The initial unemployment compensation referee agreed -no benefits. Nurse Phillips appealed. The Unemployment Compensation Board of Review agreed – no benefits. Phillips appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the first appellate court able to review decisions of law by the lower administrative courts. The Court reversed and found that the mere existence of a workplace rule and mere noncompliance therewith does not render claimants automatically ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits.

Willful misconduct is not, the court stated, based upon any single one factor but is determined in light of all circumstances. Mere noncompliance with one or two workplace rules does not establish an intentional violation or indifference to an employees’ duties. Rather, the employer must establish a deliberate violation of the employer’s policies or a willful disregard of the employer’s interest. Only direct evidence of a petitioner’s conduct and intentions will satisfy this high burden of proof.

The Commonwealth Court determined that an employee’s inadvertent violation of employer’s workplace rule does not automatically constitute willful misconduct warranting a denial of benefits. The court ruled that mere direct but simple violations of workplace rules, no matter how many, alone do not constitute a basis for denial of unemployment compensation benefits. Rather, the employee’s appropriate, timely, and justified explanation of the factual circumstances precluding her from knowing or following the rules must be addressed in the record and considered by the referee when making a determination of intentional or willful misconduct.

The applicability of this case to the nursing realm is important. Every nurse that is terminated from their high stress, high-volume, under-staffed, and highly complex workplace environment should apply for unemployment benefits. An employer’s claim that you failed to comply with workplace rules as the sole justification for termination is false. Hostile work/patient environments, overpopulated hospitals, and understaffed nursing departments requiring nurses to perform two or three jobs without adequate training, supervision, and compensation are all factors that must considered by any unemployment compensation referee.

This case clearly stands for the statement “it’s not what happened on the job, but why it happened.” Please call me to discuss your workplace termination. In this hostile workplace environment and heightened regulatory reporting time, every job place termination will result in a license reporting investigation by the state licensing boards. Start out your defense of your license at the first administrative hearing possible.

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One Response to Nursing License Discipline, Willful Misconduct, and Unemployment Compensation

  1. D.Starks says:

    I am experiencing a similar situation right now. I am on my second appeal with unemployment. My job terminated me based off several situations that were not only false but not in my scope of practice as a License Practical Nurse. The referee made his decision off his on personal opinion not off the facts.

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