The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
I was fired for being late for work because I overslept. Will that make me ineligible for unemployment?
It may be an uphill climb, but you could be eligible. It depends on whether it’s misconduct under the law, which depends on your particular facts.
The Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act exists to alleviate economic insecurity due to involuntary unemployment. The key word is involuntary. If you’re voluntarily unemployed, you’re not eligible for benefits.
That’s why the two main disqualifications for benefits are voluntarily leaving work, and misconduct. Those are considered to result from conduct under your control, so that you’re voluntarily unemployed.
Just being fired doesn’t make it misconduct, since most workers are at will employees, who can be fired for no reason whatsoever. As long as it’s not discriminatory.
Even being fired or a good reason isn’t necessarily misconduct. As the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which handles unemployment claims, has put it: “Every justifiable discharge does not disqualify the discharged employee from receiving unemployment benefits.”
The Act defines misconduct as “the deliberate and willful violation of a reasonable rule or policy of the employing unit, governing the individual's behavior in performance of his work.”
The law goes on to specify that a rule violation must either harm “the employing unit or other employees,” or be “repeated by the individual despite a warning or other explicit instruction.”
A recent Illinois Supreme Court case said this means that “carelessness and poor performance alone do not make an employee ineligible for the Act's benefits.”
For better or worse, these general principles don’t draw a bright line between what’s misconduct, and what’s not. Each case depends on its specific facts.
Many cases deal with tardiness. The only Appellate Court case on oversleeping seems to cut the employee a lot of slack. Because a power outage messed up their alarm clock, and they’d neglected to install a battery to back it up, the employee wasn’t intentionally tardy, and was therefore eligible for benefits.
The court said that an employee must consciously choose to break the employer's rules, or in this context, consciously choose to be late, in order to be ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Other cases muddy the waters. One said it was misconduct where an employee was repeatedly tardy—sometimes up to 2 hours—because they kept sleeping through their alarm. The fact that the employee didn’t get a better alarm, after many warnings about being late, seemed to be decisive.
Other cases say that being 5 minutes late because of car problems and a late bus, or being late because of unusual traffic delays, wasn’t misconduct. But, still others say tardiness resulting from routine traffic and public transportation delays should be expected, and is therefore misconduct.
These not entirely consistent cases suggest you have a shot at eligibility if you overslept despite a decent alarm system. But, the more often you’re late, and the later you are, the more difficult the shot.
The Department of Employment Security’s “Digest of Adjudication Precedents” contains case summaries. It’s inside the “Unemployment Insurance Law Handbook,” which you find by searching for it at ides.illinois.gov.
Updated: December 1969