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Part-time prisoners are eligible for unemployment compensation, split Pa. Supreme Court rules

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By Matt Miller |

A divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Friday that a man who lost his job can get unemployment compensation even while he was serving a part-time prison sentence for an unrelated crime.

That decision hinged on the court’s interpretation of the words “incarceration” and “during.”

As Justice Kevin M. Dougherty noted in the court’s majority opinion, Daniel Harmon was fired from his job three months after being convicted of driving on a suspended license. His termination had nothing to do with that conviction.

A Philadelphia judge ordered Harmon to serve 30 consecutive weekends in jail on the license violation.

Harmon started his sentence in March 2014 and collected unemployment comp while serving it. After he completed his jail time in August 2014, his local unemployment office told Harmon he had to repay nearly $3,000 in benefits he received for the weeks spanning his weekend incarceration. Unemployment comp officials sought the refund under a regulation that bars people from receiving jobless aid while they are incarcerated.

A split Commonwealth Court panel upheld the benefit denial. That’s when Harmon took the case to the Supreme Court.

In the high court’s majority decision, Dougherty found the incarceration prohibition doesn’t apply to part-time prisoners like Harmon who must support themselves financially for the parts of the week they aren’t behind bars. Any benefits ban applies only “during” the time an inmate is actually behind bars, he determined.

“We conclude the legislative history of the (unemployment comp) statute does not suggest the General Assembly intended to disqualify those serving sentences of weekend confinement from receiving benefits,” Dougherty wrote. Such a ban applies only to inmates jailed for an entire week, Dougherty concluded.

Work-release prisoners still are ineligible for unemployment comp because they are financially supported by the state, he found.

Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy filed a dissenting opinion, arguing that “during” should mean the jobless aid ban is in force whenever someone spends even part of a week in prison.

“Because (Harmon) was incarcerated for two days each week, and I cannot reconcile how (he) was not incarcerated ‘during’ the week, I would conclude (Harmon) was ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits,” Mundy wrote.

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