BikePortland.org

Want unemployment? Should have bought a car, state says


John Carter says that if his employer
violated a condition of his hiring, he
shouldn’t be denied unemployment
coverage for refusing to comply.
(Photo courtesy Carter.)

A Southeast Portland man is questioning a state decision about when it’s “reasonable and prudent” to switch to a car commute in order to keep a job.

John Carter, 43, says he accepted a job on the condition that he wouldn’t have to drive to work. Four months later, he says, he was fired, then denied state unemployment insurance, after he refused to relocate to an office he feels would have required it.

Carter, who worked as a computer support analyst, sold his car after TriMet opened a Green Line MAX stop near his house. When he took a job with a Lake Oswego-based firm early this year, he said, his contract stipulated he would be able to work in the company’s downtown Portland location rather than at its headquarters, where late shifts make it impossible for him to commute home by public transit.

Four months later, Carter said, the company changed that deal. When he refused to work some shifts in Lake Oswego, he said, they fired him.

When he applied for unemployment insurance benefits, Carter got another surprise: though the state agreed that he’d committed no “willful or wantonly negligent violation” worthy of dismissal, it denied his unemployment insurance claim on the grounds that in that situation he should have acquired “adequate transportation” whether he wanted to or not.

“The state is saying, you have to give up all your values and conform to what we think is today’s vision of society and commuting.”
— John Carter

“I was unfairly terminated, and now I’m asking the state to compensate me for that, because that’s what unemployment is for,” Carter said in an interview. “Now the state is saying, you have to give up all your values and conform to what we think is today’s vision of society and commuting. And just them requiring that puts a huge burden on somebody.”

Carter said it’s the first time he’s been involuntarily unemployed and the first time he’s claimed unemployment benefits.

Craig Spivey, a spokesman for the state employment department, said Thursday that the relevant question is whether “a reasonable and prudent person” in Carter’s situation would have bought a car or found some other way to get to the Lake Oswego site, despite his conditional hiring agreement.

“Each claim is always adjudicated on its own merits, and there’s a lot of moving parts,” Spivey said. “A person gets unemployment benefits essentially because they’re out of work for no fault of their own.”

Carter said he doesn’t think this case is a gray area.

“I’m going to send the form in to request a hearing and then they’ll hear me out,” he said. “I’ll probably have a job by then, but I’m still going to pursue it because I still think they’re in the wrong.”

Here’s Carter’s side of the story in full:

When TriMet built a green-line MAX station five blocks from my house I decided to give transit commuting to work a try. My connecting bus dropped me off at the door to my office. I only needed to walk about 6 blocks in total to commute to work. I instantly became addicted as my car sat neglected in the driveway, so I sold it and never looked back. When I quit that job and when accepting the other few jobs I’ve had since I always made sure that the commute could be done without a car. I usually took the train, bus, or sometimes my bike when the weather was decent.

My last company was headquartered in Lake Oswego so when they offered me a job I said that I would only accept if I could be located at their Portland location. They agreed and I was hired. Four months later they implemented a rotation where I would have to spend 33% of my time in Lake Oswego. I told them I couldn’t do it. Their early shift was too early for the bus to get me there on time, and the late shift got me home too late to get my son on time for the weekends. They refused to bend on their shift schedule or their new rotation policy. But mostly I didn’t want to be forced to extend my commute when I had been working so hard to ensure that all my jobs were closer to where I lived in order to reduce wasted commute time for all those in the region.

I was terminated. I applied for unemployment insurance benefits. For three weeks I submitted the usual weekly forms and for each of the three weeks I got a letter saying I wasn’t getting benefits because they were working on an issue with my claim. I finally called and talked to my assigned adjudicator and after I agreed to waive my child custody time (because I have to be available for at least two shift schedules which means my weekends with my son would be shorter) it came down to me now owning a car.

They explained that because I was a tech worker that my labor market extended to places such as Vancouver, Hillsboro, and Lake Oswego. And because I had to be available for odd shifts that I would never willingly take it meant I could be trying to get to work or home in the middle of the night or early morning when there was no TriMet service.

The solution given by the state? Get a car or you don’t get any unemployment benefits.

I was left in stunned disbelief that in a society where public transit continues to improve and the population is driving less that I would be required to get a car (while I have no job and no money) before I could qualify for unemployment insurance benefits from the state. This is the first time in a decade I’ve been voluntarily without a job. And around the holidays it hurts even more since I won’t be having the Christmas I had hoped for.

I think it’s completely unacceptable for the state to require somebody that has worked hard to lessen the burden of commuting for everybody to buy a car while unemployed so that they can qualify for unemployment benefits after being unfairly dismissed from a job.

I’ve attached an image of the administrative decision letter that they sent me stating that I was declined.

I hope that by drawing attention to this issue that others will be more informed and maybe, just maybe, the state will reconsider it’s outdated policies. You can be sure that I’ll be requesting a hearing with the state to dispute their decision to deny me. If you have any resources to pass along that may help me in my battle that would be greatly appreciated.

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