The United States has reached the worst levels of unemployment since the Great Depression and many people are still waiting for their unemployment benefits, as states' backlogged systems fail to process claims. But instead of trying to fix the problem, Donald Trump’s Labor Department has decided to issue guidance to “remind” states that they need to ensure that rooting out “improper payments and fraud” remains a “top priority.”
With states beginning to reopen businesses early during the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment offices across the country have emphasized that employees need to return to work, or else they’ll likely lose their unemployment benefits.
In order to identify people who might be turning down suitable work, the federal government is directing states to get companies to snitch on their employees if they are refusing to return to their jobs. The DOL guidance issued Monday “strongly encourages” states to “request employers to provide information when workers refuse to return to their jobs for reasons that do not support their continued eligibility for benefits.”
The guidance also reiterates the fact that people can’t get benefits if they turn down work. “As states begin the process of phased reopening, we expect historically high levels of suitable return to work opportunities. As such, states must work to maintain program integrity by ensuring that claimants are not continuing to claim benefits when they have been offered suitable work,” the Department of Labor states.
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The DOL’s latest guidance fits into our country’s anti-welfare history of prioritizing detecting “fraud” over getting people their benefits. In 2019, the overpayment rate for unemployment insurance was nearly 11 percent, while the rate of improper denial of claims was around 17 percent.
Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said that Monday’s guidance was “monumentally unhelpful” and that it didn’t offer clarity on what would be considered suitable work during the pandemic.
As VICE has reported, many people who are refusing to return to work right now are doing so not because they don’t want their jobs, but because they are rightfully afraid of getting sick or spreading the virus to their loved ones at home. Those who are going into work are doing so even at risk to their own health because they feel that they have no choice—often because they fear they will lose their unemployment benefits if they don’t return. Many frontline employees are already working under unsafe conditions. A recent Washington Post poll found that 74 percent of all Americans preferred to keep businesses closed if it meant slowing the spread of coronavirus.
“This is the first real guidance totally focused on program integrity, but every single piece of guidance that has come out from the Employment and Training Administration since the start of this has made it clear a person can’t just quit work and just get unemployment insurance benefits, and that is fraud. They’ve been hammering that,” Evermore told VICE.
While most states already have systems in place to report when a worker refuses suitable work, Evermore said that with businesses reopening “many states are encouraging and requiring that employers report work refusals.” In Ohio, the state’s labor agency set up an online form to make it easier for companies to turn in their workers. As of Friday, the agency said that they had received 1,800 reports from employers regarding around 3,000 employees.
Iowa’s workforce development site states that “If you have offered work to employees and your employee refuses to return to work, you must notify Iowa Workforce Development.” Other states have set up similar forms and made it clear that people refusing to return to work would be disqualified from unemployment.
If workers felt like their jobs were unsafe, they might be able to quit with good cause and appeal their unemployment claim or file a complaint about their employer to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But many people might find it difficult to navigate the bureaucratic process that could result in even more delays while they face already-backed up unemployment systems. And some, who have seen no relief, simply need a paycheck as soon as possible.
As people across the country desperately scramble to get by, the Trump administration is doing its best to make the situation even harder. And now, it’s pushing employers to do the dirty work.