Can I quit and receive unemployment?

I have worked for a company for a couple of years and have undergone many troubles: temporary pay cuts, temporary and involuntary pay deferrals that remain unpaid, broken agreements, and doing more than one job. However, today was the straw that broke the camel's back.

The company's two owners (and most of the company) are extremely religious. They took over control of the business a little over a year ago. Today, I was required to attend a meeting that was entitled a "Celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus". It is not the first time I have been made to go to meetings, where we'd get preached to and made to watch religious videos. Most of the Manager and Company-wide meetings are shrouded in religious content. I had never formally complained until today. At today's meeting, one of the owners went on and on about how homosexuality was "a bad thing". I was horribly offended by this statement, so I left the meeting. This is really just the tip of the iceberg. I have piles of documentation supporting me, but I never did anything.

I couldn't take it any more, so I left the meeting, wrote an e-mail to my supervisor about how I was offended by the religious and anti-gay sentiment. I have since talked to him on the phone, and he wants to know how I would like to proceed. These beliefs are so pervasive in the workplace and the company is just unbearable to work for. I don't think I can go back. I definitely don't want to. I should have left a long time ago.

I really don't know what to do besides quit or file a complaint (or both). I don't know what my options are because I can't get anyone from the Department of Labor or other government agencies to talk to me.

I would just love it if they laid me off, or if I could quit and get unemployment. They owe me $3,500 in back pay, too.

1 answer  |  asked Jun 17, 2004 3:44 PM [EST]  |  applies to New York

Answers (1)

David M. Lira
Religion and the Workplace

I would strongly encourage you to set up a meeting with a qualified attorney to discuss your specific situation. This website uses questions from the public in order to provide the public general information about employment law. This website is not intend to provide advise on specific situation.

Nonetheless, your question raises a number of very interesting issues. The issues I will cover are: 1) Constructive Discharge; 2) Discrimination on the Basis of Religion; and 3) Employer Obligations to Pay Wages.

CONSTRUCTIVE DISCHARGE

I usually encounter the concept of constructive discharge in discrimination situations, particularly in harassment situations. The facts usually involve a work environment where the discriminatory treatment is so frequent and so bad that no rational person could tolerate it. As a result the employee quits.

Now, simply because an employee is being treated badly does not create a constructive discharge situation. The situation, under past law, had to be pretty bad.

The advantage of having proof of constructive discharge is that, even though the employee quit, the separation is nonetheless treated as a termination. Once treated as a termination, the employee is able to recover backpay, or loss of earnings for the time it takes the employee to find a new job.

The US Supreme Court only this week addressed this issue, and managed to only muddy the entire concept. I always cautioned employees about quiting, but, after this Supreme Court decision, I think employees need to be even more cautious.

From a legal perspective, I would rather have the employee stay on the job until the employer fires the employee. But I also tell clients that I don't work there. I can really know how bad a situation is. Thus, I have to leave it up to the client to decide whether he or she should leave. I do, however, tell the employee that they might have a hard time getting unemployment compensation, and the employee might be waiving the right to get backpay.

DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF RELIGION

Both federal and state law prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion. Requiring employees to participate in religious indoctrination may well be considered a form of discrimination or harassment on the basis of religion. As a result, employees may be able to bring a lawsuit or proceeding against the employer.

PAYMENT OF WAGES

This is one of the few areas of the law in which the employee has the advantage. An employer's failure to pay wages promptly could result in the employer not only having to pay wages due, but paying a penalty to the employee of 25 percent of the unpaid wages. In addition, the employer might have to pay not only for its attorneys but also for the attorneys representing the employee.

posted by David M. Lira  |  Jun 18, 2004 10:17 AM [EST]

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