Republican governors in states like Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina have announced plans to begin reopening their states’ economies despite warnings by health officials that it’s too early to do so. The decisions mean that businesses may soon start calling people back into work before they feel safe, creating a coronavirus-specific dilemma: If people in those states are offered their jobs back, but refuse to take them out of fear for their safety, they will likely no longer qualify for unemployment benefits—even though they’re taking the same precautions as people one state over.
The Department of Labor’s website explicitly states that “voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance].” A Department of Labor spokesperson confirmed to VICE that employees cannot continue to collect pandemic unemployment insurance if they refuse to “return to work out of general safety concerns.” They also noted that “when an individual is no longer eligible for PUA, they are also no longer eligible for the additional $600 in benefits.”
Susan Houseman, vice president of the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research explained in an email that the requirement is “designed to mitigate abuse of the system.”
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Congress has temporarily expanded who is able to access unemployment benefits. Under normal circumstances, Americans lose their unemployment insurance in most states if they are offered work but don’t take it. But under the CARES Act, the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program provides benefits access to groups including those who are diagnosed with or live with someone who has COVID-19, those who have come into direct contact with someone who tested positive and are told by a doctor to self-quarantine, and those with compromised immune systems.
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The current situation will potentially place workers in prematurely reopening states in a life-threatening position. Public health officials are warning that it’s still too early to relax social distancing guidelines and doing so could lead to a resurgence of the virus, and many people might rightfully think it’s too soon and too risky to go back to work. Yet if people don’t fall under the specific guidelines outlined by PUA and refuse to return to their former employer, they might risk losing their unemployment benefits and receiving no income at all.
Anne Carder, managing attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, told VICE that while she doesn’t have a firm answer yet, she’s “99.99 percent sure” that people won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits in Georgia if their businesses reopen and offer them work, but they don’t want to return because of general fears of getting sick. And, when it comes to gray areas in a person’s unemployment case, it’s up to state unemployment offices to decide, and those in conservative states can be more stringent. While one could appeal a decision, that could take a long time right now, given that unemployment offices are already backed up.
Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said that state policies would differ on these questions.
"In some states I have little doubt the Unemployment Insurance agency will respect UI claimants’ assessment that the possibility of COVID-19 infection is a legitimate reason for workers to stay home, especially in the case of workers who have risk factors for COVID mortality (old age, diabetes, etc.). However, in other states, possibly including GA, TN & SC, I would expect UI agencies to be rather hard-nosed about UI claimants’ fears of contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus," Burtless wrote in an email.
That narrow interpretation of PUA guidelines could lead to states denying workers’ unemployment benefits, according to Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. Evermore pointed out that already, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee all fall at the bottom of the list when it comes to the proportion of people who receive unemployment insurance.
Already, workers across the country are having trouble getting their benefits because state unemployment offices’ are unable to handle the influx of claims. Many have gone the entire pandemic without receiving any relief yet—and in many states, PUA has yet to kick in. Some people might go back to work not by choice, but because they have to get a paycheck right now to survive.
The businesses that are reopening are not clearly essential. For example, in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp said that gyms, bowling alleys, and hair salons could reopen as early as Friday. There are a number of reasons why someone might think it’s not worthwhile to go back into these jobs and put their own health and the health of their loved ones in danger. But they might have to, or risk not getting any unemployment benefits at all.
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