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

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.
Read Full Story