Unemployment law – mental health
A new unemployment law decision from the Colorado Supreme Court protects unemployment benefits for people who lose a job due to anxiety, depression or stress.
The Colorado Employment Security Act (the “Act”), provides for unemployment benefits for a claimant who is involuntarily unemployed through no fault of her own. Consistent with that principle, one section of the Act requires a full award of benefits where a claimant is determined to have been “mentally unable to perform the work.” In this case, a hearing officer found that claimant Laurie Gomez, who was terminated from her position with the Mesa County Public Library District (the “Library”), suffered from acute stress disorder and depression and was mentally unable to perform the work required of her. The hearing officer nevertheless disqualified Gomez from receiving unemployment benefits for failure to meet established job performance standards, because the officer determined that Gomez’s stress and anxiety was caused by her own poor job performance, which put pressure on her at work. Gomez was not doing her job satisfactorily and was placed under stressful performance improvement requirements, and therefore, Gomez was ultimately at fault for creating the stress and anxiety which caused her firing. The hearing officer noted that on the day Gomez was supposed to present a written improvement plan to her boss, she called in sick from anxiety. She was fired.
Gomez appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that once it was determined Gomez was mentally unable to perform her work, the hearing officer was not authorized to inquire whether she was “at fault” for causing her mental inability to perform the work in the first instance. The Court said a finding by the Division of Unemployment that an employee is “mentally unable to perform the work” effectively amounts to a finding that the employee is not at fault for her separation from employment; it is a recognition that the employee is unable to perform, not unwilling.
It should be noted that Ms. Gomez had a doctor diagnose her with mental health problems, and she had asked for leave before she was fired. Employees should not assume that they can just quit due to stress, and qualify for unemployment.