Top NJ Court Critical of Benefits Denial to Let-Go Workers

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — A lawyer for New Jersey faced tough questions Monday from the state Supreme Court while arguing that workers who lost jobs they never quite started are disqualified from collecting unemployment. 

Getting off to a rocky start, Assistant Attorney General Melissa Schaffer made the case this morning that the language of the statute leaves no room for doubt

“You say there is no doubt, yet we have two cases that go in opposite directions,” Justice Walter Timpone said.

The two cases before the court this morning involve Patricia McClain, who quit her teaching job with Learning Edge Academy after accepting a job offer from Kids Choice Academy, and Cynthia Blake, who quit her job with Laurel Healthcare for a new job at Alaris Healthcare. 

While Kids Choice rescinded McClain’s job the day after she left Learning Edge, Alaris retracted its offer to Blake two days before her start date. 

McClain prevailed in her court battle for benefits, with Superior Court Judge Francis Vernoia finding that she did not need to start her new job to be eligible, but Blake lost her challenge before Superior Court Judge Carmen Messano.

At oral arguments Monday, Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina focused on the language of a 2015 amendment to New Jersey law, which provides an exemption for disqualification if the employee quits for a better job.

Fernandez-Vina said if lawmakers had intended to require a person to actually start a job, they would have used the word “begin” rather than “accept.”

Pressing Schaffer on intent as well, the justice also said that lawmakers crafted the amendment so that workers would better themselves by seeking more rewarding jobs. 

Justice Anne Patterson pressed Schaffer meanwhile to defend different outcomes for workers who are fired on their first day or the day before that start date. 

Though Schaffer stressed that the Legislature had been working in general to protect people after layoffs, Justice Barry Albin appeared skeptical. 

“An employee leaves a job expecting to start a new job than the offer is rescinded, there’s no benefits,” Albin said. “You think that’s logical?” 

Schaffer had a quick reply, however, when Albin asked whether the workers here could be said to have done something wrong. 

“They quit,” Schaffer said.

Pressing this point at rebuttal, the lawyer argued: “You don’t get benefits for simply quitting your job.”

Alan Lesso, an attorney for Blake with South Jersey Legal Services, challenged the interpretation of the law as now a “narrow exception.” 

“This is a liberalizing amendment to accept a job with better pay or hours,” Lesso said. 

Also presiding over the hearing were Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, Justice Lee Solomon and Justice Jaynee LaVecchia. Justice LaVecchia was not in attendance, but will contribute to the decision after watching the arguments via video. 

McClain was represented by Kenneth Goldman.

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