Court Rules in Favor of Employee who Lost Childcare

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Max Tub.jpgAny parent of young children in Minnesota can tell horror stories about how difficult it is to find childcare. The shortage of childcare here has reached crisis levels (see Minnesota’s ‘quiet crisis’ in child care: ‘There’s not a silver bullet’, St. Cloud Times, April 13, 2018; Child care shortage reaching ‘crisis’ levels, Business North, Aug. 9, 2018). Often, the crisis impacts the parents’ availability to work, which in turn impacts their ability to support their families. Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals gave those parents some help by ruling in favor of a mother who quit her job because she lost childcare.

The case involved Jamie Gonzalez Diaz who worked at Three Rivers Community Action, Inc. For about two years, Ms. Gonzalez Diaz struggled with finding and keeping childcare for her children. Initially, Three Rivers accommodated her requests for a flexible schedule to help her deal with these issues. They also allowed her to use paid time off (PTO) during some of her childcare-related absences.

However, when Ms. Gonzalez Diaz lost all of her childcare, Three Rivers told her they would no longer accommodate her, and they expected her to work regular shifts. She again asked to use PTO, but Three Rivers denied her request and told her that if she did not show up as scheduled, she would be terminated. When she again had no childcare the following week, she emailed her supervisor and said she had cleared out her personal belonging because she assumed she was terminated. Three Rivers then concluded that she had quit and sent her an email and text message accepting her resignation.

Ms. Gonzalez Diaz applied for unemployment benefits, but an Unemployment Law Judge (ULJ) denied them. Ms. Gonzalez Diaz appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which reversed the ULJ’s decision.

The issue in the case was a statutory exception to the general rule that when a Minnesota employee quits his or her job, s/he is ineligible for unemployment benefits (see Minn. Stat. § 268.095, Subd. 1). That exception is the “loss of child care” rule (see Minn. Stat. § 268.095, Subd. 1). This rule says that an employee does not lose eligibility for unemployment benefits when, “the applicant’s loss of child care for the applicant’s minor child caused the applicant to quit the employment, provided the applicant made reasonable effort to obtain other child care and requested time off or other accommodation from the employer and no reasonable accommodation is available.”

In Ms. Gonzalez Diaz’s case, there was no dispute over the fact that she quit because she lost childcare.* However, the ULJ concluded that because she could have asked for an additional accommodation (more time off) instead of quitting, she did not fit within the exception. The Court of Appeals disagreed:

While we do not disagree with any of the ULJ’s factual findings and agree that Gonzalez Diaz could have requested additional time off, we disagree that she was required to in order for the exception to apply. Gonzalez Diaz had already requested and received accommodations multiple times, and Three Rivers was well aware of Gonzalez Diaz’s ongoing child-care issues. Furthermore, Gonzalez Diaz’s failure to renew her request for an accommodation was understandable as Three Rivers rescinded the implemented accommodation and met with Gonzalez Diaz to inform her she needed to work her scheduled shifts as a result of her requesting paid time off.

Thus, the Court of Appeals ruled that Ms. Gonzalez Diaz fit within the exception and is eligible for unemployment benefits, even though she had not renewed her request for time off or some other accommodation.

While this ruling should give parents a bit of assurance of some financial security – in the form of unemployment benefits – if they must quit their jobs because of a loss of childcare, employees and employers alike need to understand its limited scope. First and foremost, it only helps define the “loss of childcare” exception to unemployment ineligibility. It does not mean that employers are now legally obligated to accommodate these childcare dilemmas. Nor does it create a separate legal claim for wrongful termination should an employer terminate an employee for absenteeism resulting from a childcare crisis.

Second, the case does not open the door for employees to set their own schedules, hours or job descriptions based on their personal childcare situations. Employers still have a right to set attendance standards and job expectations.

Finally, before the exception may be applied the employee still must make a reasonable effort to obtain other childcare and must request time off or other accommodation. The exception will not apply if an employee simply walks off the job without doing those things first.

To read the full case, see Diaz v. Three Rivers Community Action, Inc. (Minn. Ct. App., Sept. 17, 2018).

*Judge Michael Kirk disagreed with the majority on the “quit” issue. He concluded that Three Rivers discharged Ms. Gonzalez Diaz.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not to be interpreted or used as legal advice. For more information on this or any other employment law topic, please contact Tom Jacobson, who has been certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as a Labor and Employment Law Specialist.

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