“House Arrest” Not “Incarceration” to Preclude Unemployment Compensation Benefits

As we have discussed in the past, an injured worker in Pennsylvania is not eligible for workers’ compensation wage loss benefits if he or she is “incarcerated after a conviction.” That same phrase also appears in the Unemployment Compensation Law, for folks who lose their jobs through no fault of their own (having nothing to do with work injuries).

This begs the question of what is meant by “incarceration.” For instance, is “house arrest” incarceration? Though it would seem not, since the injured worker is available to work, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has held that “house arrest” is indeed “incarceration” to make an injured worker ineligible for workers’ compensation wage loss benefits. This exact issue has not been addressed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Interestingly enough, however, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed this issue as it arose under the Unemployment Compensation Law, in the matter of Chamberlain v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review. In this decision, the Court found that “house arrest” is NOT the same thing as “incarceration,” and allowed the claimant in that case to receive unemployment compensation benefits. Specifically, the Court stated:

“Absent clear language or legislative intent to disqualify claimants sentenced to home confinement, and considering the remedial purposes underlying the UC Law, we hold that Section 402.6’s preclusion of benefits does not apply to claimants on house arrest . . .
We reach this conclusion in light of precedent of this Court acknowledging the stark differences between incarceration and home confinement.”

So, you might think, by making this conclusion, since the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is also often referred to as “remedial legislation,” and the two laws have the same exact wording, that this decision also clarifies the situation in the PA workers’ compensation arena. In that case, you would be wrong. Despite the obvious parallels between unemployment compensation and workers’ compensation, the Court took great pain to state that it was NOT addressing the Workers’ Compensation Act. Instead, the Court declined to consider this “until such time as the issue is squarely before us.”

While we commend the Court for this well-reasoned and logical decision (it continually escaped us how house arrest, when one is permitted to go to work, was lumped in with actual incarceration in jail, where one is not permitted to leave the facility), we remain disappointed by the Court’s unwillingness to simply extend the holding to cover the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act as well. The issue was discussed thoroughly in the case, making it seem like the issue was “squarely before” the Court. Indeed, the two sets of laws have much in common, and, in this case, it appears judicial economy would have been better served by resolving the issue here, rather than waiting for another day. At least we, and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, know which way the Supreme Court of PA is leaning.