Court upholds decision to award unemployment compensation to woman who feared for safety at work

By Sandra Lane | Apr 25, 2018

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania appellate court has upheld a decision by the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review to award unemployment compensation to a woman who quit her job because she feared for her personal safety, according to a ruling filed on April 5 in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

The appeal was heard by judges Mary Hannah Leavitt, Michael H. Wojcik and Dan Pellegrini, who delivered the decision.

The appeal was brought by ABA Support Services in an attempt to avoid paying unemployment benefits to Judith Herrera, an employee who quit her job after being threatened and injured by a client, according to the appellate court’s decision.

Herrera began to feel unsafe at work when a female teenage client grew increasingly volatile and ran out of a classroom to the administrative offices, including Herrera’s office, where she would bang on the office door and scream while therapists tried to restrain her. Normally, two adults were required to restrain the client, according to the appellate court’s decision.

Herrera took photos of bruises she suffered during one of the client’s episodes. She also used her cell phone to record the client’s outbursts as she banged loudly on her office door.

On Jan. 23, 2017, the client erupted into a particularly severe outburst and required five staff members to restrain her. The police were called after the client was restrained, prompting Herrera to leave work early and quit her job the following day.

She then filed for unemployment benefits, citing both personal and health reasons. According to the appellate court’s decision, she told her former employer that she quit because she didn’t feel safe, had suffered injuries that required medical attention and had to keep her office door locked while she was at work.

The Unemployment Compensation Board of Review analyzed the case and decided that Herrera was eligible for unemployment benefits due to being subjected to an unsafe work environment.

The company, for its part, appealed the board’s decision, questioning how Herrera could “feel that the client was a threat to her if she did not work directly with the client,” according to the appellate court’s decision.

The appellate judges, however, upheld the board’s decision, ruling that Herrera had demonstrated that the danger at work was real and not perceived.

“[The] claimant had a necessitous and compelling reason for leaving her employment—fear for her personal safety because [her] employer was unable to control the client’s violent tantrums, which were growing progressively worse,” Pellegrini wrote in the decision. “Furthermore, the only reason [the] claimant had not been directly harmed is because the client had not yet succeeded in breaking down [the] claimant’s office door. Given these facts, [the] claimant has shown that the danger was real and not merely perceived as dangerous, and that she gave [the] employer adequate opportunity to address her safety concerns.”

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