Employees fearful of returning to work could still receive unemployment benefits

Updated: May. 12, 2020 at 8:24 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - As more businesses reopen in Alabama, many employers are requiring their employees to return to work. Some people, however, might not feel safe going back, and now they fear losing their unemployment benefits.

Refusal to work could mean no unemployment benefits

According to the Alabama Department of Labor, to remain eligible for unemployment benefits, Federal law requires that those who have been placed on a temporary layoff related to the COVID-19 pandemic must return to work.

In an April 22 news release, Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said refusal to work “could potentially disqualify claimants from receiving unemployment insurance benefits.”

“It’s important for workers to know that if their employer reopens or otherwise calls them back to work, they must do so, unless they have a good work-related cause for not returning,” Washington said.

Exceptions for coronavirus unemployment

The CARES Act set up a program called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), where some of the normal unemployment rules are loosened. PUA provides unemployment benefits to those not ordinarily eligible for them. This includes individuals who are self-employed or contract employees.

Without having been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine, an individual who does not go to work due to general concerns about exposure to COVID-19, and who does not meet any of the other COVID-19 related criteria for PUA is not eligible for unemployment. The CARES Act provides for PUA benefits under 10 circumstances.

  1. The individual has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
  2. A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  3. The individual is providing care for a family member or a member of the individual’s household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  4. A child or other person in the household for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency and such school or facility care is required for the individual to work;
  5. The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
  6. The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
  7. The individual was scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job or is unable to reach the job as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
  8. The individual has become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19;
  9. The individual has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19; or
  10. The individual’s place of employment is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

If a claimant is requested to return to work and they don’t meet any of the above circumstances, benefits will cease.

What about returning to a workplace whose work conditions some might consider unsafe due to the outbreak?

The Department of Labor says to report an employer if their response to the possible spread of the coronavirus “creates a serious safety hazard.”

“Alabama does not have a state agency that regulates workplace safety,” said Tara Hutchison, Alabama Department of Labor’s Communications Director. “All of that falls to the federal agency which is OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] so I would encourage anyone who has those type of concerns to contact OSHA and/or the Alabama Public Health Department to see if their employer is possibly in violation of any health orders.”

What can employers whose employees are not returning to work do?

“What they need to do is let we, us, the Department of Labor know that and they can do that online through our New Hire System,” said Hutchinson. “There is a place they can select ‘refusal to work’ and then that way we will go in and investigate that employees benefits and see if they need to be disqualified.”

Hutchinson also said as those “refusal to work” reports come in, the ADOL will investigate the employee on a case by case basis. One of the things they will be looking for is documentation from a physician proving that, for example, someone in that employee’s family, or the employee themselves, has a medical condition that would refute them from being able to return to work.

ADOL said the CARES Act specifically provides for serious consequences for fraudulent cases including fines, confinement, and an inability to receive future unemployment benefits until all fraudulent claims and fines have been repaid.

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