Unemployment Laws for the Dental Office – June 2009

Unemployment laws are important for employees who work in small businesses such as dental offices and who are separated from their employment through no fault of their own. There are parts of unemployment law that are particularly important to know in dental offices where there are particular types of employees and rules of the workplace that are both affected by unemployment laws and other laws.

Which employees are covered is one of the areas in which dental offices and their employees must be cognizant of when dealing with unemployment laws. True independent contractors are not covered as employees, and what separates an independent contractor from an employee hinges on how much “direction and control” the employer exercises over the individual’s work. A dentist who works within the dental practice but is not under the direction and control of the owner dentist will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. However, even if there is part ownership in the practice there are definite reasons why a dentist would be considered an employee and not an independent contractor. Even solo dentists in a practice which is incorporated would arguably be considered an employee unless they leave “without cause attributable to the employer.”

There are various ways in which an employee can be allowed an extension of unemployment benefits if they are participating in a training program or education program authorized by the Department of Unemployment Assistance which is important to gaining suitable employment. This would come into play if an employee such as a dental assistant or hygienist is taking further courses which would allow them to gain employment in the dentistry field. If an employee is deemed to be able to work without conflicting with the course of studies then they are required to try to obtain such partial or full-time employment.

An employee can be ruled ineligible to collect benefits if they leave the place of employment voluntarily and without good cause. One of the examples which has been ruled as not being good cause to leave a place of employment is when an employee loses particular qualifications or licenses because of actions within their control. Thus a dentist or hygienist who has his or her license suspended or revoked will not be eligible to collect unemployment if he or she is no longer able to perform their duties because of the lack of qualifications.

Disagreements with employment practices are not deemed good cause to leave a workplace and collect unemployment benefits. However, when the employee may be subject to loss of their license or subject to liability because of employment practices, then good cause is established. If a violation of health or safety regulations exists because of employment practices, such as may occur in a dental office on occasion, then there is good cause to leave the practice voluntarily.

Violations of rules of the workplace that are well established are often a defense for the employer to prevent the collection of unemployment benefits. The rule involved must be regularly and uniformly enforced and there must be a “knowing violation” of the rule. The examination of the employee’s state of mind is a key analysis of the application of this aspect     of unemployment law, and if the action is not considered by the employee to be adverse to the employer’s interest then the employee may still be eligible for benefits. An example in the dental office would be if a safety or health regulation has been broken by an employee inadvertently, even if it is a major violation that may lead to liability for the dentist as the employer, then it is considered a “mistake” which is not a reason to fire an employee and prevent collection of benefits. Misconduct is not considered a defense to the awarding of benefits unless the misconduct is in willful disregard of the employer’s interest.

Awards of unemployment benefits have significant effects on unemployment insurance rates. It is thus important that dentists be aware of the specific rules of unemployment law that may be particularly applicable to terminations made within a dental office.