The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday heard the appeal of an Iowa woman who was denied unemployment benefits after missing work and subsequently losing her job as a medical assistant because she was in jail. Sondra Irving missed more than three weeks of work after being held at the Johnson County Jail in late 2013, in part because she couldn’t make bail which was set at $17,500.
Irving's domestic violence charges were later dismissed without going to trial and she applied for unemployment benefits, which Iowa Workforce Development denied. After losing in district court, Irving appealed to the state's high court, saying that her incarceration was beyond her control.
The court has ruled previously that if a reason other than sickness or injury causes someone to miss work and lose their job, they are not entitled to benefits. Similar Iowa Supreme Court appeals due to a lack of childcare or insufficient transportation have been unsuccessful.
"Somebody who can't (get to work) because they don't have transportation, because their car broke down. Isn't that just because they couldn't afford a better car?" asked attorney Rick Autry of Employment Appeal Board.* "That's not at all uncommon, that a lack of money effects as a practical standpoint whether someone's going to be able to meet conditions that will allow them to satisfy the employer's job conditions."
"There is a difference between a claimant who is physically prevented from being at work, who is held there by the state, had bond put against her that is beyond something she can reasonably afford, and people...who are at the whim of a late bus," says Irving’s attorney Alisa Diehl of Iowa Legal Aid.
Justices seemed concerned by how siding with Iowa Workforce Development and the Employment Appeal Board's denial of benefits may hurt economically marginalized people. They also questioned Diehl on why the legislature didn't make an exception in Iowa Code to ensure unemployment benefits for people who loss their jobs through incarceration.
*An earlier version of this post erroneously stated Autry represents the Iowa Workforce Development.