New Yorkers in some of the city’s industries hardest-hit by the coronavirus are struggling to see a way forward after being furloughed and laid off. (April 30)
Furloughed in mid-March, three days after starting her new job, Angela got the call to come back to work earlier this month. But the Pittsburgh mother of two agonized about whether she should return.
“I’ve never had to choose between employment and life,’’ says Angela, who suffers from asthma and feared her job visiting the homes of families on the brink of homelessness could expose her to the coronavirus and jeopardize her health.
So she decided to quit. “You go out and expose yourself … and you get sick, what happens to my kids?” says Angela, who didn’t want to use her last name and risk difficulties with prospective employers who disagree with her decision. “I’m actively looking online for … remote work from home.”
Her fears are not unique.
After grinding to a near halt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the nation’s economy is sputtering back to life as stay-at-home orders lift, and businesses reopen their doors. But some employees are wary of returning to work as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers.
Can they refuse to go back? If they quit, are they eligible to receive unemployment benefits?
Millions more are out of work: 2.1M more Americans file for unemployment, bringing 10-week total to more than 40 million amid coronavirus
The short answer is no –you can’t collect jobless benefits if you quit a job because of a general fear of the virus, experts say. But if your job site is truly unsafe, you might have grounds to refuse to return and to get financial assistance while you are out of work.
It will be up to workers to make their case.
“We’ve never had a pandemic since unemployment insurance has been in play, so we have to really be thinking about what the new rules for a pandemic are,” says Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “So much of this is on the back of the claimant rather than the employer… We really need to think about how do we get information to workers about how to stay safe.’’
Fear of COVID-19 not necessarily grounds for quitting
COVID-19 cases continue to rise, with deaths passing 101,000 as of Thursday , even as barbershops, restaurants and other businesses start to welcome back customers across the U.S.
Yet protections for workers remain uneven. Some states are requiring that employers provide safeguards, but the federal government hasn’t issued a similar mandate, says Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director for NELP.
“There’s nothing that says everybody has to be six feet apart and you have to wear a mask, unless you’re in certain states where the governor has put out executive orders,” Berkowitz says. “That’s the universe that workers are going back to work in, which is incredibly scary.’’
If you quit your job because of a general worry about the virus, you won’t be able to access unemployment benefits.
“Fear is not a legitimate reason to refuse to return,’’ says Justine Phillips, an employment attorney with the law firm, Sheppard Mullin, “and state unemployment agencies can disqualify the individual for benefits if they refuse to accept suitable employment when offered.’’
But a worker who’s been collecting unemployment insurance and is particularly vulnerable because of underlying health conditions or a compromised immune system could apply for pandemic-related aid, says Evermore.
Those who leave work because they are looking after a relative who has contracted COVID-19, or taking care of a child whose school or day care center closed because of the virus are also eligible for financial help.
“A lot of those people can move over to pandemic assistance and continue to get benefits,” says Evermore.
Suitable work can’t put employee’s health at unusual risk
An employee might also be able to refuse to return to work and receive benefits if the job site is unsafe.
“Workers can’t refuse suitable work and continue to collect,” Evermore says, “but if the job is truly unsafe, they may have grounds to refuse the reassignment … If you are going back to work at a nail salon and every other salon in town is providing masks and protective gear, you have good cause to say ‘I can’t go back to work here. They’re not as safe as all the other similar jobs in town.’ ”
Unemployment assistance specifically pegged to the pandemic is modeled on disaster-related aid. Under those standards, suitable work can’t be unusually risky to a worker’s health or safety, Evermore says.
But unusual risk may be defined differently depending on the state.
“I encourage people to check with the state agency before making a decision, because if they refuse work and their boss reports they refused, they can lose their unemployment check,” Evermore says. “It has to be clear … what suitable work is.’’
What if you go back and colleagues are getting sick?
If an employee does go back to their job and discovers their workplace isn’t following protective guidelines, or colleagues are contracting the virus, they may have what’s considered “good cause” to quit.
But good causes can also differ from state to state. “Again, the burden of proof … is on the worker,” Evermore says, “and some state agencies are going to take a harder line on this than others.’’
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones
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