On appeal from Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For affirmance -- Justice Oliphant. The opinion of the court was delivered by William J. Brennan, Jr., J.
The primary question here is whether a worker retired on pension at age 65 as required by a collective bargaining agreement has "left work voluntarily without good cause" so as to be disqualified for unemployment compensation under R.S. 43:21-5 (a) providing that an individual shall be disqualified for benefits "for the week in which he has left work voluntarily without good cause, and for each week thereafter until he has earned in employment * * * at least four times his weekly benefit rate * * *."
These consolidated cases arise from claims filed by a number of former employees of Campbell Soup Company who
were retired on pension by the company as each attained age 65. Retirement at that age is made compulsory by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement dated March 22, 1950 between the company and Food, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union of America, Local 80. The contract plan supplanted a retirement policy initiated unilaterally by the company in 1938. Pensions at Company expense are provided for such retired employees as have had at least five years of service with the Company.
The Appellate Division, 24 N.J. Super. 311 (1953), held that the claimants were disqualified for benefits, concluding that the contract made for the claimants by the union is the claimants' contract and that, "having called for retirement by the company at age 65, the employees made the matter compulsory as to the company and removed it from the realm of involuntariness as to the employees" who are therefore to be considered as having "voluntarily terminated" their employment. The judgment reversed determinations of the Board of Review allowing benefits to claimants Hattel and Pieri, who were found by the board to be otherwise eligible therefor, and sustained the determination disallowing benefits to claimant Attanasio, whom the board found to be ineligible on other grounds. The board considered that a worker otherwise eligible was entitled to benefits and was not barred because his termination resulted from the application of a contract under which his termination was compelled. The board also found as facts in each case that
"The claimant did not want to relinquish his job. He requested that he be allowed to go on working. He was advised by the company, that, in its view, the retirement and pensioning were compulsory under the contract. Without further protest the claimant retired and accepted the pension. He was thereby barred from working for this employer. The union did not protest his pensioning off under the duly established grievance machinery. The claimant sought other employment without success."
We allowed certification from the Appellate Division's judgment upon the board's petition and the cross-petition of the claimants, 12 N.J. 350 (1953).
If the inquiry is isolated to the time of termination, plainly none of the claimants left voluntarily in the sense that on his own he willed and intended at the time to leave his job. On the contrary, each claimant resisted his termination and left against his will only upon his employer's insistence that the contract obligation gave neither of them any alternative but to sever the relationship.
We think the leaving was involuntary in the statutory sense.
The act is designed to provide unemployment compensation for workers who ordinarily have been workers and would be workers now but for their inability to find suitable jobs. Krauss v. A. & M. Karagheusian, Inc., 13 N.J. 447 (1953). Benefits are allowable only to claimants who satisfy the eligibility tests prescribed by R.S. 43:21-4 and who are not disqualified within any of the provisions of R.S. 43:21-5. But the act recognizes that in a country such as ours workers are always free to change jobs and to seek work of their choice, except perhaps as this freedom may be restricted by governmental regulations in times of national emergency. The act therefore visits no penalty upon the worker who voluntarily quits suitable work if he has good cause for leaving, and only the limited penalty imposed by subsection 5 (a) if he leaves without good cause. The Legislature plainly intended that the reach of the subsection was to be limited to separations where the decision whether to go or to stay lay at the time with the worker alone and, even then, to bar him only if he left his work without good cause. The claimants here did not choose of their own volition to leave the employ of ...