Social Service Agency Fires $9/Hour Worker For Not Buying A New Car

The employer called it "willful misconduct." A court disagreed.

fired business woman carrying...
Shutterstock / marcogarrincha
As low-wage workers are staging walk outs for raises, one Pennsylvania woman who had been earning $9 an hour won a small, but little-noticed victory against her employer. A Pennsylvania court just sided with Shamela Hightower who was essentially fired because she couldn't afford a car on the wages her employer paid, as the Patriot-News reported.

The employer, Bell Socialization Services of York, Penn., has a laudable mission: support the homeless and people with mental health or intellectual disability issues. The group talks of its environment of support and empowerment." But the agency fired Hightower, when her car broke down and she didn't repair her old car or buy a new one. She earned $9 an hour and said she didn't have the money; Bell Socialization Services said having a car was a condition of the job.
She went to court when Bell Socialization tried to keep her from receiving unemployment benefits. According to court records, the organization claimed that Hightower "engaged in willful misconduct by violating a work rule without good cause," which would make her ineligible for unemployment compensation. The court rejected that, saying she has a right to the benefits.

It's legal for a company to require workers to have cars, so long as the demand is clear up front. And it was for Hightower, who had her own car, according to court records, and was hired as a full-time residential service provider starting in June 2011. Bell required her to transport clients "to doctors' appointments and other events," as the court records show.

Eventually her car broke down. At that point, Hightower says she borrowed her mother's car until mid-January 2012 when "an accident rendered it inoperable."

On May 15, Bell told Hightower that she needed to have her own transportation by July 15, according to reports. But on $9 an hour, she couldn't afford to either have her old car repaired or to get a new one. On July 16, Bell fired Hightower. There's no information as to whether Bell provided expense reimbursement for employees to use their own car. So far, Bell has not responded to an AOL Jobs request for an interview.

Where things really took a turn: Hightower applied for, and was granted, unemployment. Bell objected and asked for a review, which was granted in November 2012 and upheld Hightower's benefits. So Bell escalated the process again, going to court to block the benefits, as the court documents show.

Employer argues that Claimant engaged in willful misconduct by violating a work rule without good cause and is, therefore, ineligible for UC benefits under section 402(e) of the Unemployment Compensation Law (Law).


The court's answer? "We disagree."

According to the three-judge panel, Hightower had good cause to not follow the rule: she couldn't afford to get a new car. Not only did she make only $9 an hour, but there was an unspecified wage garnishment of 10 percent, meaning that her income was effectively $8.80 an hour.

According to the living wage calculator created by researchers at MIT, a living wage in York for a single adult would be $7.93 an hour. That is less than Hightower made, but that includes only $262 per month in transportation costs. A car payment, insurance, gas, and maintenance could run significantly higher.

Bell argued that Hightower should have borrowed money from her family or repaired her old car, but the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review found that she could neither afford to fix her car nor borrow enough to buy a new car. Bell further argued that she should have transferred to another job that didn't require a car, but the court found the argument "unreasonable" because it would have had to overtly give Bell the option, which it apparently did not do.

According to the Patriot-News report, Bell is still considering whether to appeal the ruling to the state's Supreme Court. Bell's lawyer, Patrick McLaughlin, was quoted as saying, "She didn't try to help herself as much as we thought she should have." Maybe Bell should have put its money where its mouth is.

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seeya

Bell fights everyone if they file for unemployment! All they need is for someone to come in and lie this will get unemployment denied, I know because it happened to me. I was approved for unemployment then once they detested it, I was denied even after i was already approved for it. As far as this transportation issue. Bell has vehicles to transport individuals in, but if it breaks down, that is when you are to use your own vehicle.They pay very little for gas mileage that's it. You should not expect a raise if you work here either.I didn't get a raise for over 7 years and when you do get one it will be .07, yes this is what you get for dedication to this company. All staff were given a paper to sign stating they would have gas in their car in case they would be transferred to another home to work, and if they didn't sign it they were going to be fired.This company will go to any lengths to screw you.

November 07 2013 at 8:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
harryhurrel

Who writes these articles?? Quote "Not only did she make only $9 an hour, but there was an unspecified wage garnishment of 10 percent, meaning that her income was effectively $8.80 an hour." As far as I know 10 percent of $9.00 is $0.90 which means she would be making $8.10 per hour.

September 08 2013 at 10:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cindy

I worked for a home health company, you have to have a car, you know that going in. Our company told us there was "no excuse for not working on bad weather days" even though we went into rural areas with winding dirt roads and hills and across streams in a few cases. We went places the snow plows couldn't even get into in the winter. Their answer: "Just go buy a 4WD, that's what all the Nurses have done." I looked at the supervisor and said "You do know your Nurses make $25 an hour, CNA's make $8. So does that mean you're giving us a raise or you're paying for the vehicle?" Never heard another word about it.

September 08 2013 at 12:22 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
redneckpriest

Cheap Companies , How far does $9 go . Let cut your pay to that amount & see how you do.

September 07 2013 at 11:58 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Sole

I've worked for these sorts of places for about a minute. My dayghter did as well. The thing is that if you transport people in your private vehicle, at least in our state, in the duty of your work, you have to have special license and special insurance. The living wage as would not be including the garnishment, it would be what she has per hour or minus taxes. She may have to pay these amounts but that does not work into the equation other than being smart enough to realize that a car is out of the question at the present time. If the person needs a car the employers should have a fleet available. This is all grant funded social service so employer, maybe either hire less or opt to write another grant for the transportation aspect of the jobs.

September 07 2013 at 11:56 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
BRYANT

Many companies and government entities have this requirement. If it is stipulated in your employment contract what is it that you don't get? If you do this kind of job you MUST have a vehicle - you cannot transport clients on your back or your bicycle. Want to work but you can't do the job? You will be fired - of course (understood everywhere but in America).

September 07 2013 at 11:55 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
Charles Prescott

Well I wonder how much it has already cost Bell to hire thier lawyer or lawyers to avoid paying this woman's unemployment.

Just betting it would have been better and way cheaper for them to do the RIGHT THING and maybe pay to fix her car so she could have a car to transport those she was helping and maybe do a reasonable payroll deduction that she could afford since they were to cheap to offer a company car or give her a living wage.

Notice I did not say they fix her car for free but in essence give her a interest free loan.

Like others have also mentioned I wonder how much if at all they paid her to use her car to transport the homeless and others to doctors appointment's and what have you.

Another thought here is did Bell cover what would be added insurance cost to her since she was expected to use her car on company business.

I know I would inccur added insurance cost if I was expected to use my car for company business.

So personally companies like Bell I think can go the way of what we do with our various waste.
Being disposed of and never seen again.

September 07 2013 at 11:40 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
tmspitrow

HAPPY THAT THE COURTS AGREED WITH WORKER.
HER BOSS IS AN IDIOT

September 07 2013 at 11:36 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
brennemanbelkin

Bell's lawyer, Patrick McLaughlin, was quoted as saying, "She didn't try to help herself as much as we thought she should have."

He probably charged more for this quote than her unemployment cost.
Bell must be a publically funded organization.

September 07 2013 at 10:42 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Bill

Be prepared, there's much more comming down the pike for so many in our country.

September 07 2013 at 10:29 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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