The process of determining who is eligible for unemployment benefits can seem arbitrary and ambiguous at times, particularly in the case of workers who are terminated with cause.
For example, a former Hall County jailer received thousands of dollars in jobless pay after being fired in 2012 for punching a handcuffed inmate in the head, according to documents obtained by The Times through an open records request.
The jailer later pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor simple battery and was sentenced to five years’ probation.
While the Georgia Department of Labor decides eligibility on a case-by-case basis, the basic rule of thumb is that employees must be out of work through no fault of their own and actively seeking a new job in order to receive pay.
But there are typically mitigating circumstances, and like the judicial system, workers are considered innocent until proven guilty.
“Each case is determined on its own merit,” said Sam Hall, DOL communications director. “In a lot of cases, there are two sides to every story.”
In the case of the Hall County jailer, what seemed a cut-and-dried matter proved to be just the opposite.
The jailer denied knowing his job was in jeopardy even though he had been suspended for five days after the incident in question, and the DOL hearing officer said the county failed to meet the burden of proof for denying benefits.
“For you to be disqualified, your employer must show that you failed to work as required,” the hearing officer states in the decision to award unemployment benefits. “Your employer has not done so.”
The county was unsuccessful in reversing the decision on appeal.
“The employer has no first-hand knowledge of the incident, thus the information they provided in the hearing is hearsay and holds no probative value,” the hearing officer’s report states.
Hall County Human Resources Director Bill Moats said he was left scratching his head by the DOL’s ruling.
“We do our best to present our case,” he added. “Sometimes you win them, and sometimes you don’t.”
When Hall County loses, taxpayers pick up 100 percent of the cost, reimbursing the DOL. County governments are different than private sector employers in unemployment matters.
Moats said employers are constantly revising their personnel policies to protect against any liability and any potential situation that could present a dispute with workers. Getting it in writing can help in unemployment hearings.
“You have to throw such a broad net sometimes,” Moats said, but added that getting too specific can be problematic in its own right, creating the potential for loopholes.
Moreover, there is no accounting for common sense, Moats said.
“This didn’t happen here, but many years ago at another employer, we terminated someone for stealing,” Moats said. “We had video, all kinds of stuff. The unemployment office chose to focus on how we could prove that the employee knew that stealing was against company policy. I was like, what do you mean, stealing is against the law.”
While some county employees received benefits after being fired last year, others did not.
According to county records, one employee posted a threatening message on Facebook and was denied benefits because “you were at fault in your separation,” according to a hearing officer’s decision.
Another county worker quit because of being passed up for promotions, but this also did not qualify as a reason to receive unemployment benefits.
But the process remains fluid and subject to discretion. It’s often a matter of he said, she said.
For instance, an employee was fired for failing to obey orders, but the DOL determined the county had not proven its case and awarded the worker benefits.