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Peril of Losing Benefits While Vacationing Unemployed

When one loses one’s job, being unemployed certainly can free up some time to take a trip or visit people which one otherwise would not have the time to do due to the constraints employment can put on someone. Taking such trips, however, may have the unintended, and perhaps unexpected, consequence of having one’s unemployment benefits discontinued, as happened in the recent New Jersey case of Vialet v. Board of Review, Department of Labor, and Lundbeck Research, USA, Inc. Superior Court of New Jersey, Case No.: A-1226-11T2 (2012 WL 5274565).

The Claimant in Vialet was unemployed and eligible for benefits under the applicable unemployment compensation law. Claimant collected benefits for about two (2) months, from early October 2010 to early December 2010. Coincidentally to her termination from employment, Claimant was to travel to Jamaica on December 15, 2010 to be the maid-of-honor in his sister’s destination wedding. Claimant’s trip to Jamaica was originally scheduled to be a rather short trip. As it turned out, however, Claimant’s parents were of ill-health and living in the Virgin Islands, and, since Claimant was in the Caribbean neighborhood, she flew there to pay her parents a visit after the wedding. Claimant planned to stay in the Virgin Islands until December 27 but could not return home until December 31 due to inclement weather. Claimant asserted that she would not have been able to start new employment, were she to have received an offer for the same, until January 2011, presumably due to her sixteen (16) day trip to parts of the Caribbean.

When reviewing the facts of the case, as described above, the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review ruled that Claimant rendered herself ineligible when she decided to take a trip through the Caribbean, regardless of her reason. The logic employed was this: eligibility requires a claimant to be able and available for work as well as actively seeking employment. The Board of Review believed that being thousands of miles from one’s home and being absent until January meant that she was not able and available for suitable work, because potential employers could not contact her, and she could not appear at potential job interviews. The Board of Review obviously did not believe that the Claimant was “genuinely attached to the labor market” and did not have “good cause to refuse” employment. If Claimant was asked to start at a new job on, say, December 20, 2010, she would have had to refuse, due to being in the Caribbean for what the Board of Review believed to be something other than “good cause.” The Court noted that there were some exceptions to the requirement to be able and available for work, such as a close family member’s funeral or jury duty, but international travel to a wedding was not among them.

Claimant appealed the Board of Review’s decision, arguing that modern communication and internet technology made her job search possible anywhere in the country, if not the world. Claimant also argued that the Board of Review failed to consider possible employment opportunities which could be performed through electronic means. In essence, Claimant argued that there was some sort of parity between being electronically linked to the marketplace and being physically present in it.

In order to successfully appeal the Board of Review decision, the Claimant bore a burden which is rather substantial. Specifically, the Claimant had to overcome the presumption of correctness the Board of Review enjoys. Furthermore, the Court “accords substantial deference to an agency’s interpretation of a statute that the agency is charged with enforcing” and such an interpretation can only be overcome if it can be shown to be “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, unsupported by substantial, credible evidence in the record, or inconsistent with either legislative policy or the agency’s enabling statute.”

After a review of the matter, the Court did not believe Claimant’s arguments overcame the burden articulated above. The Court ruled that requiring a physical presence in the marketplace was not unreasonable or arbitrary, but was consistent with existing case law. Indeed, perhaps critical to Claimant’s inability to succeed on appeal, the Court refused to account for the influence of modern technology in interpreting existing law (which predates much of this new technology). The Court upheld the Board of Review’s decision that Claimant’s trip made her unavailable and unable for employment, which detached her link from her local marketplace, was consistent with the facts presented and applicable law, and Claimant’s arguments could not overcome her burden to demonstrate otherwise. As a result, Claimant was ruled to be ineligible for receipt of benefits while she was out of the country upon leaving for the Caribbean.

The message the Court is sending is pretty clear: a claimant for unemployment compensation benefits must at virtually all times be ready to accept a job offer if one were to come his way. A claimant should be leery of taking any extended trips anywhere of a relatively long distance which could impair the ability to interview for a job or accept employment nearly immediately. Until the Court incorporates or recognizes the advancement of modern communication technology and/or telecommuting, a claimant should stay close to home while collecting benefits.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on June 25, 2013 and can be viewed here.

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