Is walking off the job quitting?
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In terms of whether walking off the job with no notice could constitute quitting, a lot depends on the specific circumstances—the job generally, and of how and when the employee walked away.
Salary v. hourly worker
First you must consider the difference between salaried and hourly staff. If someone is paid on a salaried basis, they are paid the same weekly amount regardless of hours worked: working 20 hours pays the same as 40, as 60, or even 80 hours. Since employers cannot track the time of salaried employees for certain (i.e., payroll) purposes, a salaried employee leaving work midday or early by itself does not necessarily mean anything—they may simply be taking advantage of the inherent flexibility offered salaried staff.
That can be contrasted with hourly workers, who typically have a set or defined shift: hourly staff do not generally have the luxury of determining their hours the way salaried staff do. An hourly worker missing work is generally more “meaningful” than a salaried worker doing so. In that sense, a salaried worker leaving mid-workday doesn’t communicate the same thing that an hourly worker leaving mid-shift generally does.
What makes walking out questionable?
Does walking off the job signal (even if non-verbally) an intention to resign or quit? Resignation or quitting is a deliberate action by an employee; there must be, as stated, an intention to leave employment. If walking away demonstrates that intention, then walking away constitutes quitting. So to the salary vs. hourly distinction above, since an employer should not be tracking the comings and goings of a salaried worker the way they do hourly staff, and since a salaried worker can leave early some days (just as other days, they will work extra or late without additional pay), the salaried employee walking off the job does not necessarily, without something more, communicate or demonstrate an intention to resign.
Nature of the job: There are other factors to consider in evaluating whether the employee’s action of walking off the job means the employee has unequivocally quit or resigned.
For example, the nature of the job performed by the employee matters. There are some jobs where leaving automatically constitutes a direct failure to do the job, such as toll or ticket collectors, receptionists, nurses, security guards, cashiers, home health aides, etc. Since you cannot do these or other jobs where presence is necessary without being present, walking off the job demonstrates an intention to not do the job—i.e., an intention to quit. On the other hand, there are jobs where continuous attendance is not necessary, such as many office jobs. If presence during defined hours or at a certain location is not necessary for a job, walking away does not necessarily show an intention to quit or resign.
Words: It is not just the employee’s action that matters; it is also his or her words. Was anything said before walking out and what prompted the employee to walk out.
There is an obvious difference between an employee walking out after engaging in loud argument with coworkers, customers, or managers, or saying “I can’t take this anymore,” versus someone simply quietly leaving the premises without fanfare. The former, due to precipitating events, suggests that walking out was resignation; however, the latter does not. The combination of words indicating an issue or conflict with the employer and the act of walking away combines to suggest resignation. (We say “suggest” because this is a subjective evaluation or a judgment call. If there was litigation, one court could find that the employee did resign, while another might not—it depends on how the fact finder-- the judge-- views the situation.)
What about safety?
Can you walk off the job without resigning if you have safety concerns? Only in very limited circumstances. The safety threat would have to be serious—of significant injury or death. The threat must be urgent—there is no time to file a safety complaint with OSHA or take other action less urgent than walking off the job. Assuming the threat was not immediate, you must have first notified your employer and given them a chance to correct the situation. And you must be acting in good faith, and not using the alleged safety threat as an excuse or pretext for something else.
Otherwise, when the criteria above are not met, if you simply walk off the job, it will likely be taken as resignation.
There is no single answer, though clearly there are many circumstances under which walking out could be construed as a resignation or quitting.
However, to a large extent, it does not really matter. Even if walking off the job were not the equivalent of quitting, an employer (at least in the absence of an employment contract to the contrary) would often be justified in firing the employee “for cause” (e.g., insubordination; violating workplace policy, or terms and conditions of employment; absenteeism.) Being fired for cause has the same legal effect for most purposes, such as eligibility for unemployment insurance, as resigning or quitting.
So even if in a specific case, the employee could credibly argue that they did not quit, the employer could still often terminate them for cause. And even when the circumstances don’t support a for-cause termination, due to employment at will, the employer could still terminate the employee if unhappy with what the employee is doing—simply not for cause (so at least the employee would be able to receive unemployment benefits).
The doctrine of employment at will—which applies whenever there is no employment (including union) contract—gives employers enormous latitude to terminate employment. Essentially, there is no right to a job, so if an employer wants an employee gone for walking off the job, the employer can get rid of that employer, whether it’s by accepting the employee’s resignation or by firing him or her. This is a case where the workplace culture, attitude of the employer, and the employee’s relationship with the employer matters more than the law.