If your employer is contesting your claim for unemployment hearing, odds are that you are experiencing some anxiety. The process can be confusing and intimidating, and there is the prospect of losing – or paying back – money at a time that you need it the most.
As part of my practice, I have successfully represented many employees who are going through the unemployment process. As with many things, the key is to understand what is happening and to be prepared for what is to come. I work with my clients to make sure that they are taking the necessary steps to present the best case that they possibly can.
The first steps of an unemployment claim are decided on paper. Following the loss of your job, you will file an initial application for benefits with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (“ODJFS”). At this point, a questionnaire is sent to your former employer so that ODJFS can determine your eligibility for benefits. Generally, eligibility will be determined by (1) whether you have worked sufficient hours in the past to be covered by unemployment insurance and (2) the reason for your termination. As you can imagine, most disputes arise over reason you were terminated.
Generally, if you were laid off for lack of work or were terminated without cause you are eligible for benefits, and if you were terminated for cause you are not. If your employer contends that you were terminated for cause, then you are going to have to fight it out through the unemployment process to determine both whether the employer’s stated reason for terminating you was true and whether it was really enough to justify termination. For example, if you were fired for intentionally setting the workplace on fire this will be considered adequate cause, whereas if you were fired for being five minutes late to work it might not be.
Based on the responses to the questionnaire and potentially a phone interview with you, ODJFS will make an initial determination of eligibility. Using their language, benefits will be “allowed” (you get benefits) of “disallowed” (you do not get benefits). If your benefits are allowed, assuming you continue to look for work you will begin to receive benefits immediately. If they are disallowed, you will not receive benefits unless you successfully challenge the decision. Regardless of the outcome, either party – you or your employer – may appeal.
If the determination is appealed by either party, the case will be transferred to the Unemployment Review Commission (“URC”). If you are appealing, you will have the opportunity to argue that your termination was not justified. Unfortunately, at this stage you will not receive the employer’s questionnaire or any other statement about why you were fired. Instead, you will be facing a vague, general statement such as “terminated for violation of a work rule.” Although you may feel like you are fumbling in the dark, you must not ignore this opportunity to make your case as best you can.
After you and your employer have submitted your arguments, the URC will issue a “redetermination” of your eligibility. If you are found to be eligible at this stage, you will receive benefits going forward and, if you were initially determined to be ineligible, will receive a back award of benefits. If you are found ineligible, you will not receive benefits going forward and, if you were initially determined to be eligible, you will be ordered to pay back what you have already received.
Again, each party will have the opportunity to appeal this decision in writing. If a written appeal is filed, you will be set for a telephone hearing in front of a hearing officer. If you are the appealing party, remember that your written appeal will become part of the record and will be seen by the hearing officer. Do not miss this opportunity to reinforce your arguments and provide any documentation that you have.
Even if you have been denied benefits, it is important that you continue to file a weekly application for benefits online. If you subsequently get the denial reversed, you will not receive any back benefits for any week in which you did not apply. It may seem silly to continue to apply for benefits when unemployment has told you several times that you are not eligible, but you must do so to protect your interests.
It is at this stage in the process that many employees retain an attorneys to write their written appeal and to represent them at their hearing. I will describe the hearing process, and how I prepare my clients for a hearing, in a later post.
Sam Schlein is an associate with the law firm Marshall Forman & Schlein LLC. He represents individuals in a wide range of employment issues.
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