An employment relationship may be ended in a variety of ways with different legal consequences, so it’s important to accurately determine the method by which it’s terminated. An involuntary termination (i.e., the employee is fired) occurs when the employer decides to end the employment relationship. A voluntary termination or resignation (i.e., the employee quits) occurs when an employee indicates an intention to leave employment by word, manner of action, or by actions that aren’t consistent with the continuation of the employment relationship. That may seem simple enough, but complications can arise quickly when the employee expresses an intention to quit at some point in the future. Much depends on whether the employee has provided a definite date of termination of employment.
Unspecified Intention to Quit, and Employer Discharges
If an employee indicates an intention to quit but doesn’t specify a date, and the employer then dismisses the employee, it is not considered a voluntary termination.
For example, imagine a waitress informs her boss she doesn’t like waiting tables because she hates being inside all day. She says she’s going to look for outdoor work, such as landscaping or lifeguarding. Because she hasn’t provided a definite date but has merely indicated she is looking for new work, she hasn’t quit.
In the meantime, if her boss finds a replacement and dismisses her, she has been fired, and the termination was involuntary.
Definite Separation Date, and Employer Accelerates
If an employee provides a definite date of voluntary termination—whether the customary two-weeks’ notice or a specific date in the future—but the employer accelerates the date, it’s still considered a voluntary termination. The employer is liable for unemployment benefits, however, from the date it makes the termination effective until the time the resignation would have occurred.
Wisconsin courts refer to this as an “accelerated quit,” in which an employee’s notice of quitting on a specified date is made effective by an employer that doesn’t allow the employee to work out the notice period.
For example, imagine on March 1 that the waitress told her boss her last day would be May 31 because she is going to start with a landscaping crew in June, but her boss tells her the resignation is effective immediately. The employer would be liable for unemployment benefits for the 91 days between March 1 (the date of notice) and May 31 (the specified quit date).
Definite Separation Date but Fired for Misconduct
On the other hand, if the employer accelerated the employee’s last day of work because of her misconduct, the termination is involuntary, and the employee is not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Finally, this all assumes there isn’t an employment contract, but instead the employee is employed at will. If there is an employment contract, it would govern whether the employer must pay the employee for time not worked. Also, if the employer requires a two-week notice, depending on how the requirement is worded, it may be responsible to pay the employee if it terminates them immediately.
Paul Matenaer is an attorney with Axley Brynelson, LLP, in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.