Amicus Brief Supports State Supreme Court Appeal of Man Denied Unemployment Benefits While Incarcerated on Weekends

Update: On April 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Daniel Harmon had been wrongfully denied unemployment benefits. Read the opinion here.

February 15, 2018 – The Public Interest Law Center, together with Community Legal Services, The National Employment Law Project, and the Homeless Advocacy Project, filed an amicus brief in support of an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from a decision by the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review that interpreted state law to deny unemployment benefits to an individual who was incarcerated on weekends. The Law Center and other amici curiae were represented by lawyers from Community Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project. Read here for more information on the case and the Law Center’s previous amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to take the case.

Mr. Harmon worked at Brown’s Shoprite in 2013 when he was convicted of driving with a suspended license. He was sentenced to 60 days in prison, but the court allowed him to serve his time over the course of 30 weekends so he could continue to work. While completing his sentence, Mr. Harmon lost his job at Shoprite through no fault of his own. He applied for unemployment benefits as he began to search for another job.

The Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Board of Review held that Mr. Harmon’s weekend incarceration rendered him ineligible to receive unemployment benefits based on its an interpretation of state law that bars people from receiving benefits for any weeks of unemployment “during which” the employee is incarcerated. The Commonwealth Court agreed.

Our brief argues that the Commonwealth Court’s interpretation undermines the intent of partial confinement by making it harder for people involved in the criminal justice system to stay connected to the workforce, creating one more barrier for incarcerated individuals returning to their communities, hoping to contribute and build their lives. We also argue that the lower court’s interpretation creates a new collateral consequence arising from a criminal conviction, and show that Pennsylvania, along with states across the country, has moved in the direction of reducing collateral consequences, not imposing new ones, in a conscious effort to make it easier for people with criminal records to reintegrate into their communities.

Finally we discuss the importance of keeping people who are involved in the criminal justice system connected to the workforce. According to the National Institute of Justice, an estimated 60 percent of previously incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year after release. At the same time, a 2011 study concluded that employment is the single most important factor in reducing recidivism. Sentences of partial confinement, like Mr. Harmon’s, can help mitigate the barriers that incarceration poses to employment, but only if those who receive these sentences are allowed to participate in the workforce to the fullest extent possible. Read the amicus brief here.

The case is scheduled for oral argument on September 25, 2018.