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Court: Remote worker wrongly denied Missouri unemployment benefits

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JEFFERSON CITY — A St. Louis woman was unfairly denied jobless benefits after she was let go from her job for working remotely from another state, a panel of judges ruled Tuesday.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District said Fedra Ekres should have been able to tap into unemployment benefits after she left her position working for Franklin Energy Services in the midst of the pandemic.

According to the decision, Ekres was working at a call center in St. Louis when COVID-19 mitigation measures in March 2020 triggered a decision to have employees work from home.

Ekres soon after moved to New York but continued to work for Franklin, which is a contractor for Ameren.

Her decision to move was not unlike those made by millions of other workers who went from a daily commute to their offices to a remote scenario that allowed them to complete their tasks from nearly anywhere.

But a week after starting her work from New York, two company officials called Ekres and said her employment with Franklin had ended.

“Ekres testified that she did not quit, but instead that Franklin terminated her during the March 31, 2020, call with two of her supervisors. Ekres said that her supervisors told her she was being let go because she had ‘moved out of state,’” the decision notes.

The Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, which acts on appeals of unemployment benefit denials, ruled that Ekres was not eligible for benefits.

The appeals court judges disagreed.

“The Commission’s findings and conclusions that Ekres voluntarily quit her employment are not supported by sufficient competent evidence. Ekres was involuntarily discharged and is entitled to an award of benefits,” said the opinion, written by Judge Cynthia Martin.

The judges, in the unanimous decision, said a company official testified “that Ekres’s work had been satisfactory, and that Ekres was not violating any rule by working remotely from New York state during the pandemic.”

The decision is a departure from typical court rulings in similar cases over the past 15 years, according to Arlene Kanter, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law.

Kanter told The Associated Press in September that judges often sided with employers without requiring much evidence that telecommuting was unreasonable.

“What I think we’ll see now is courts will not just defer to the employer’s judgment,” she said. “Employees should have the right to explain how they can perform their job remotely and how they just did it if they were working remotely during COVID. That’s why I think we’re at a turning point.”

Originally posted at 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15.

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