The Nebraska Supreme Court, housed at the State Capitol. (Courtesy of Rebecca S. Gratz)
The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday reversed a lower court’s opinion denying several weeks of unemployment benefits to a packinghouse worker who said he refused to take on additional duties of a colleague absent with COVID-19.
The ruling centered on whether Saied Badawi’s actions leading up to his termination from JBS Swift Beef amounted to misconduct, which could disqualify him from 14 weeks of unemployment payments.
In its 18-page decision, the high court said the employer did not provide “competent evidence” to support a lower court finding that Badawi had committed misconduct by refusing to perform both jobs.
“At best, this record shows only that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer employees were able to work at JBS. … Badawi refused the order to perform both jobs because he thought he was not physically capable of doing so. And the record shows that both before and after Badawi’s discharge, the two jobs were performed by two individuals rather than one.”
‘Protection for the people, rather than employers’
The lawsuit, Badawi vs. Albin, names as a defendant John Albin, director of the Nebraska Labor Department, because the department handles unemployment benefits.
Albin said Friday that the Labor Department was pleased with the high court’s decision, as it affirmed procedural matters the department favors, particularly that the burden of proof for misconduct when denying benefits lies with the employer.
“We really didn’t have a big stake in the determination of whether or not the individual was entitled to benefits,” Albin said.
The lawyer for JBS was not available for comment.
Zach Anderson of Legal Aid of Nebraska, who argued on Badawi’s behalf, said he was “super excited.” He called the ruling that explicitly says an employer must prove misconduct a win for employees.
“It offers protection for the people, rather than employers, which impacts so many when they’re in the most profound need for safety when unemployed,” Anderson said.
Under state law, misconduct includes willful disregard of employer interest, deliberate violation of rules, disregard of behavior that the employer can rightfully expect or intentional disregard of the employee’s obligations.
When he was ‘most in need’
Anderson said the case was important also because it pertained to a period of time during the early stages of the pandemic when his client was “most in need.” The lower court had said Badawi would get unemployment benefits, but only after the 14-week penalty.
According to the testimony, Badawi had worked for about 1.5 years at JBS when he was discharged in mid-2020.
The Department of Labor found early on that Badawi left his job voluntarily without good cause and thus was disqualified from the benefits until he met certain requalification requirements.
On his appeal to an administrative body called the Nebraska Appeal Tribunal, Badawi argued through an Arabic interpreter that he didn’t leave his job on his own accord. JBS did not appear for the hearing, which also looked at whether Badawi was discharged for misconduct connected with his work.
Badawi said he was asked to perform his own job duties, which required using a knife, as well as those of another employee who was out sick with COVID-19.
Badawi admitted that JBS had a policy, which he had signed, saying employees should be open to an assignment transfer. JBS contended Badawi was discharged for “insubordination” because he “repeatedly refused to perform the work assigned to him” pursuant to the policy.
Lacking ‘competent evidence’
Badawi testified that the demand that he work two jobs “at the same time” was different. He said it was “impossible” to do “a job for two people.”
The employer twice sent him home for a week, and upon returning the second time, Badawi was not allowed back. He reportedly had been making $18.55 an hour.
While the tribunal eventually found that Badawi did not voluntarily leave without cause (and therefore was not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits on that basis), it did find him to be disqualified from the 14 weeks of benefits because of misconduct. In part, the tribunal said, Badawi was “aware that he could be asked to fill in for another position according to the (employer’s) policy.”
The district court affirmed that decision, which was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed the lower court.
“On this record there is no competent evidence to support the district court’s finding that Badawi committed misconduct by refusing to perform both jobs,” the high court ruled.
Anderson said he now expects his client to receive unemployment benefits he was initially denied.
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