Panel to weigh whether people wrongfully detained are eligible for unemployment benefits

Review stems from a 2021 state Supreme Court decision

By: - June 16, 2022 7:16 am

Lawyers say people who lose their jobs because they are wrongfully imprisoned should not be denied jobless benefits. (Getty Images)

While maintenance worker Clarence Haley was in jail after his arrest in 2017, his mother asked his employer to hold the position open for him. But by the time a prosecutor dismissed all charges against Haley eight weeks later, he had been fired.

Released from detention and trying to get back on his feet after two months of being wrongfully imprisoned, he applied for unemployment benefits. The Department of Labor denied him on the grounds that he “voluntarily” left his job. He appealed the decision, which went all the way up to the state Supreme Court in 2021. 

The justices remanded the case back to the Department of Labor for a hearing, but declined to say all people detained for pretrial hearings who later had their charges dismissed should be eligible for jobless benefits.

Jenny Brooke Condon, a Seton Hall Law professor and attorney who represented Haley, told the New Jersey Monitor that people who are wrongfully detained should be treated the same as other innocent people who need unemployment benefits.

“It should be made clear that losing them is not a consequence of being wrongfully arrested and cleared of criminal charges,” she said.

The New Jersey Law Revision Commission is set to meet Thursday to consider the state Supreme Court’s opinion and decide whether unemployment statutes should be updated. The commission, composed of nine members, meets monthly to review state statutes.

To be eligible for unemployment benefits from the state Department of Labor, workers typically must show they were terminated or laid off.

Under a 1961 law that was affirmed in the 1990s, workers are ineligible if they leave a job for personal reasons, and “incarceration is a purely personal reason,” according to the state Supreme Court decision.

The Legislature has created certain exemptions for some people who voluntarily leave their jobs, like those who quit due to domestic violence or because they must travel with a spouse who is on active duty. There should be an exemption for someone like Haley, said Alex Shalom, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. 

“The idea that that would be deemed voluntary seems totally anathema to the purposes of unemployment insurance, that we want to make people whole unless they voluntarily leave their job. And no one voluntarily gets wrongfully incarcerated,” Shalom said. 

The Supreme Court determined incarceration should not be an “absolute bar” to unemployment benefits. In Haley’s case, the court issued a narrow ruling mandating the Department of Labor to conduct a fact-intensive review of his circumstances to determine if he left his job voluntarily. 

Justice Barry Albin dissented, agreeing with the majority that Haley should have his case reviewed but saying all workers who lose their jobs because of pretrial detention and are then exonerated should be entitled to unemployment benefits. He concluded the Legislature must have the final say. 

“The Supreme Court left open the possibility that there may be some cases where pretrial incarceration, if it’s for a long enough period of time, might warrant a denial of benefits. I think that’s extremely unjust,” said Condon.

There is no pending legislation that would change the statute. The Department of Labor declined to comment.

It’s unclear how many states can deny unemployment benefits to someone who lost their job because of wrongful incarceration. Condon said New Jersey is an outlier and should remedy the statute to remain a progressive leader for the nation.

“Returning from incarceration, pretrial or after trial, there are a lot of barriers set up. A couple months, or even a year’s worth of unemployment benefits would make that easier,” said Shalom. “Does it wipe away all that happened? Of course not, but it’s a little safety net to give people time to adjust and ease some burdens.”

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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