Iowa Woman Gets Unemployment Benefits Despite Jail Time

Jun 3, 2016

A person in Iowa can’t be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if they lose their job because they’re in jail. That's according to a four-to-three decision from the state's supreme court.

In late 2013 medical assistant Sondra Irving of North Liberty spent nearly four weeks in jail, unable to post a bail of $17,500.

The charges were later dropped, but because Irving had been incarcerated for so long, she’d lost her job at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

When Irving applied for unemployment benefits, Iowa Workforce Development denied her request aid. The agency said her incarceration was her own fault and therefore voluntary, the Employment Appeal Board later upheld that ruling.

The Iowa Supreme Court disagrees, saying Irving is entitled to unemployment benefits.

"Incarceration is perhaps the ultimate nonvolitional act," writes Justice Brent Appel in the majority opinion. 

The court says while there may be circumstances when incarceration is an employee’s fault, the burden of proof rests with the employer.

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Mark Cady writes Iowans with limited financial resources would be disproportionately affected if the high court were to rule that it is an employee's responsibility to make bail in order to return to work after an arrest. 

"Justice in our state," he writes, "will be advanced when all implicit bias found in our laws and rules can be identified and eliminated. This case is one example and is a step in the right direction."

In his dissent Justice Thomas Waterman points out that Irving was charged with domestic assault, though Irving's partner later withdrew her allegations. 

"We recently reiterated that victims often recant in domestic abuse cases," writes Waterman. 

And though an incapacitating illness is a legitimate reason someone may seek unemployment after losing their job, Waterman reasons that incarceration falls under the category of "personal responsibility" He likens incarceration to missing work due to unreliable transportation or childcare issues.

"Iowa employers are entitled to expect their employees to show up for work. Being in jail is not a valid excuse," says Waterman.