In a decision issued on April 27, 2015 by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Chamberlain v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, the Court has issued a decision which may be the final word, absent additional legislation, on when or whether an individual who is eligible for unemployment compensation benefits and/or workers’ compensation benefits can collect these benefits while on house arrest. This decision creates a significant difference between workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment compensation benefits in terms of whether the benefits remain payable in a house arrest situation.
In this case, Mr. Chamberlain was unemployed and receiving unemployment compensation benefits. While doing so, he was arrested and pled guilty to operating a vehicle without a valid inspection and driving with a suspended license. He was sentenced to sixty days of house arrest. The conditions of his house arrest permitted him to work if he could find employment. He was then notified by the local Service Center of the Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits that he was disqualified from receiving benefits while under house arrest.
The reason given by the Service Center was because he was “incarcerated after a conviction”. He appealed that determination, but lost before the Unemployment Compensation Referee and the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR). Mr. Chamberlain filed an appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. There, the denial of benefits was reversed, which then resulted in the case being appealed by the UCBR to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In reviewing this matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court initially discussed the basic qualifications that are required to secure unemployment compensation, which are that the claimant:
- Is able to work and is available for suitable work;
- Has received sufficient wages for employment for a sufficient period of time to qualify;
- Is participating in an active search for suitable employment; and,
- Has submitted a valid application for benefits after being unemployed for one week.
The Court then went on to discuss the provisions of the Unemployment Compensation Act which provide for ineligibility of incarcerated employees, which states as follows:
“An employee shall not be eligible for payment of unemployment compensation benefits for any weeks of unemployment during which the employee is incarcerated after a conviction”.
The Court noted that the Referee and the UCBR had relied on this section in denying benefits to the claimant during the period of house arrest. The Court also discussed several prior decisions, dealing with “nearly identical language” that disqualifies individuals receiving Workers’ Compensation benefits from receiving those benefits while “incarcerated after conviction”.
The Court noted that the Commonwealth Court as well as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had previously held that, for purposes of a Workers’ Compensation claim, “incarcerated after conviction” means more than confinement to jail. The Supreme Court had previously ruled that confinement to a detention and alcohol recovery facility was considered incarceration.
The Commonwealth Court also previously held that house arrest, even with a work release, disqualifies a Claimant from receiving workers’ compensation benefits. However, in the present case, the Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth Court which had noted that the purpose of the Worker’s Compensation Act is different than the purpose of the Unemployment Compensation Act.
The Workers’ Compensation Act provides compensation for loss of earning power caused by a work injury. The Unemployment Compensation Act generally provides economic security when an individual is unemployed through no fault of his/her own and is otherwise available for work.
After lengthy discussion (the Court’s decision is 25 pages long), the Court found that under the facts of this case, Mr. Chamberlain continued to be qualified for unemployment compensation benefits while under house arrest. The Court noted that house arrest was distinguishable from incarceration in a prison, or confinement to a halfway house or drug and alcohol facility. The Court noted that with house arrest, an individual has much greater liberty, and with a work release the Court reasoned that Mr. Chamberlin met the criteria to remain eligible for unemployment compensation benefits.
So, what does this all mean?
- For unemployment compensation benefits – An individual who, following a conviction, is confined to some sort of facility, whether it is jail, a halfway house or some type of treatment facility, is considered incarcerated and ineligible for unemployment benefits. However, an individual on house arrest following a conviction is not considered incarcerated and is eligible for benefits.
- For workers’ compensation benefits –At least at the present time, even house arrest is sufficient to disqualify an individual from receiving workers’ compensation benefits during the period of “incarceration”. The Chamberlain case, however, opens the door for a possible appeal in a future case on this issue.
How can we use this to our advantage?
- For unemployment compensation benefits – An individual on house arrest who is also given a work release can obviously continue to qualify for unemployment compensation benefits under this decision.
- For workers’ compensation benefits – Less obvious is the way that this could be used to the advantage of an individual who is receiving workers’ compensation benefits but has been placed on house arrest. That individual would presently be disqualified for workers’ compensation benefits. However, it is possible that unemployment compensation benefits could be obtained during the period of house arrest. As a general rule, if one has obtained a light duty release to return to work they can potentially qualify for unemployment compensation benefits. Here’s how it is done:
- obtain a light duty release from your physician;
- present that release to your employer and request light duty work;
- if your employer cannot or will not provide light duty work, file for unemployment benefits. As long as you meet the basic qualifications discussed above, you then qualify for unemployment benefits.
Although it usually is not beneficial to apply for unemployment compensation benefits while receiving workers’ compensation (because there is a dollar for dollar offset against the workers’ compensation payments) this unique scenario creates a significant exception. This is because the workers’ compensation offset based upon the receipt of unemployment benefits only applies to weeks in which both benefits are simultaneously payable. Here, since no workers’ compensation benefits are payable during the house arrest, no offset for the unemployment benefits would apply.
This is clearly a complicated matter, and what to do in any individual situation needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. However, the basic take away of this entire discussion is that one who is receiving unemployment compensation benefits or workers’ compensation benefits and finds themselves facing house arrest may still be able to be compensated during that period of time.