DEAR CARRIE: My daughter-in-law works as a social worker for an agency. For 18 months she treated patients in the office. Recently, her office-based position was terminated and she was assigned to treat patients in their homes. This was considered a new position, and she received a small raise, which she doesn't care about. She walks alone to patients' apartments in some rough areas. She remains in their residences for up to an hour, and she feels unsafe. Others at the agency who were likewise reassigned feel the same way. If she quits, will she be eligible for unemployment benefits? -- Worried In-Law
DEAR WORRIED: She may be eligible. It's hard to answer with a definitive "yes" because the issue turns on several variables. For help, I turned to employment attorney Sheree Donath, who works in the Uniondale office of the Cory J. Rosenbaum law firm.
Employees generally qualify for unemployment benefits if they lose their job through no fault of their own, Donath said. On the other hand, employees who voluntarily quit their jobs are generally ineligible for benefits.
Those are the basic rules for unemployment benefits eligibility.
"Of course, there are exceptions, wherein an employee quits his/her employment and still collects unemployment benefits," Donath said. "In those situations, it is determined that the employee quit with 'good cause.' Your daughter-in-law's situation may fit into this category."
The unsafe working conditions you mentioned may constitute a good cause for quitting, but employees have to make the case, Donath said.
"In alleging good cause for termination, the employee must first have made good-faith efforts to try and resolve the concerns," she said. "That means that before quitting, you must report the concerns to your employer (i.e. your supervisor, management and/or through any internal grievance hotline), and your employer must fail to resolve the issue."
Not making that effort could be costly.
"Without attempting to resolve the problem," Donath said, "it may be determined that the employee did not have a true desire to remain employed, and therefore the employee may be denied unemployment benefits."
Also, employees have little room for a good-cause argument when they accept the terms of a job, even some they later regret, she said.
It's unclear whether your daughter-in-law was made aware of the new terms of her employment when she accepted the new role or whether she has objected to the new terms or requested a resolution of her concerns, Donath said. For example, has she asked to be placed back in an agency-based role or requested that someone accompany her to the residences?
"If she has not done so, I suggest that she reach out to her employer right away and request that she be placed back into an agency-based role," Donath said.
Your daughter-in-law should put her request in writing -- preferably by email so she has a copy of the request and any responses received. She should say in the communication that she is concerned for her safety, that others in her situation are also concerned for their safety, and she should list the reasons why she is afraid, Donath said. She may also want to include in the email a description of the effects, if any, that the new role is having on her health.
"By sending this email she may be able to change her current working conditions to one where she feels safe," Donath said. "Also, if her request is denied, then she has [something in] writing to present to unemployment to show that she took steps to try and resolve her concerns prior to her quitting."