On December 4, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill into law that amends the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act (the “Act”), effective January 3, 2016, to expand the types of employee behavior that constitute misconduct for purposes of disqualification from benefits. The general definition of misconduct under the Act is a deliberate and willful violation of a reasonable company rule or policy that harmed the employer or that the employee repeated despite warning. The amendments to the Act provide that misconduct “shall include” eight (8) specific categories of employee behavior: (1) falsifying an employment application; (2) failing to maintain a license required for the job; (3) knowingly and repeatedly violating company attendance policies that are in compliance with federal and state law, despite written warning; (4) damaging employer property though grossly negligent conduct; (5) refusing to follow an employer’s reasonable and lawful work instructions; (6) consuming alcohol or illegal drugs on the employer’s premises during work hours in violation of company policy; (7) reporting to work under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs; and (8) committing grossly negligent conduct that endangers the safety of co-workers or other individuals.
While these amendments have been welcomed as business friendly, they also create potential pitfalls for Illinois employers who do not have employee handbooks and employment policies that are current and fully compliant with federal and state employment law. Indeed, some of the specific types of misconduct require violation of specific employment policies, such as attendance, that are in compliance with federal and state employment law, which is extensive. Moreover, for absenteeism to constitute misconduct, the unauthorized absences must be knowing as well as repeated, and require prior written warning. It could be argued that the amendments impose a more difficult standard for Illinois employers to prove misconduct in certain instances. In any event, the burden of proof is still on the employer to establish misconduct, in order to disqualify an employee from eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Illinois employers should update their employee handbooks and employment policies to conform to the enumerated specific types of misconduct and their elements, before the amendments take effect.