Individuals Who Refuse Unsafe Work May Be Eligible for Retroactive Unemployment Benefits

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 26, 2021
U.S. Department of Labor headquarters sign

​On Feb. 25, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) clarified in guidance that laid-off individuals who refuse work because of COVID-19 safety concerns may be eligible for unemployment benefits.

"For many of America's workers, choosing between unsafe employment and refusing work to avoid the risk of coronavirus infection has serious consequences," the DOL stated. "Too often, those who do not return to work or accept a job offer over concerns about workplace exposure lose their state unemployment benefits."

In response to a directive from President Biden, the DOL issued guidance to state unemployment insurance agencies that expands the number of instances in which workers may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

The guidance uses the example of an individual who was laid off in June 2020 and began receiving regular unemployment compensation. The individual was recalled to work in October 2020. However, because the worksite was not in compliance with the local mask mandate, the individual refused to return to work and, as a result, was disqualified from continued receipt of regular unemployment compensation under state law. The individual is now eligible to apply for PUA under this new COVID-19-related reason.

In another example, an individual was laid off in October 2020 and began receiving regular unemployment compensation. The individual received a new job offer in January 2021. However, the new worksite was unsafe due to noncompliance with physical distancing measures under state law. The individual, after declining the offer, was disqualified from continued receipt of regular unemployment compensation under state law. The individual is now eligible to apply for PUA under this new COVID-19 related reason.

An individual is not eligible for PUA if he or she is otherwise eligible for regular unemployment compensation. Many states have provisions in their state unemployment compensation law that consider work that unreasonably exposes an individual to health and safety risks to be unsuitable work, the DOL stated.

We've gathered articles on the guidance from SHRM Online and other trusted media outlets.

Guidance's Application

The DOL guidance broadens the PUA program designed for workers not covered by traditional unemployment benefits. The guidelines do not apply to workers who quit because of COVID-19 concerns. The guidance notes, "This new COVID-19-related reason applies only to individuals who had already been receiving unemployment benefits but were determined to be ineligible or disqualified under state law because they refused an offer of work at a worksite that was not in compliance with local, state or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19." The DOL added that there is a separate item in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act providing eligibility to an individual who quits his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.

(Forbes) and (DOL guidance)

Three Categories of Workers

The new guidance expands unemployment benefits eligibility to three categories of workers:

  • Workers receiving unemployment benefits who had their continued regular unemployment claims denied after they refused to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite not in compliance with coronavirus health and safety standards.
  • Workers who have been laid off or who have had their work hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic.
  • School employees working without a contract or reasonable assurance of continued employment who face reduced paychecks and no assurance of continued pay when schools are closed due to the coronavirus.

The new reasons apply retroactively—as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program.

(Insurance Journal)

Tens of Thousands Affected

The guidance is partly aimed at the approximately 37,000 people who were denied unemployment insurance after being laid off and declining to return to work last year. But it will have little effect on the 1.23 million people who have been denied unemployment insurance after quitting. The change in eligibility takes effect immediately. Nonetheless, workers' claims could take at least a month to be approved, given delays at state unemployment agencies.

(The Washington Post)

PUA Benefits

Congress created the PUA benefits program in March of last year to provide payments to certain people affected by COVID-19, as well as freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers and others who don't typically qualify for unemployment insurance. The program already is available to those who can't work because they have a health condition that puts them at risk or because their children's schools have closed.


State Function

Unemployment insurance is primarily a state function, and each state can set its own rules and procedures, noted Rob Duston, an attorney with Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr in Washington, D.C. "It does not appear that the DOL has any authority to require states to change the terms of their eligibility for unemployment insurance," he said.

(SHRM Online)



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