Refusing Unsafe Work Doesn't End Unemployment, DOL Says

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (July 22, 2020, 5:28 PM EDT) -- Workers who refuse unsafe job offers may be able to keep collecting expanded unemployment benefits, but those who lost their jobs for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 can't collect even if the pandemic stops them from finding employment, the U.S. Department of Labor said in new guidance.

The agency's Employment and Training Administration, in a letter to state unemployment administrators on Tuesday, answered two dozen questions arising from the pandemic and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, which expanded weekly benefits by as much as $600 and made more workers eligible to collect.

Whether a worker who refuses work can continue to collect boosted benefits under the CARES Act's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program will depend on what their state considers to be safe work conditions, the agency said. Work that falls short of these standards is not "suitable" under unemployment law and refusal does not disqualify a worker from receiving benefits.

"Many states ... have suitable work provisions that consider work that unreasonably exposes an individual to safety risks to be unsuitable," ETA Assistant Secretary John Pallasch wrote. "If an individual receiving PUA is offered and refuses work that unreasonably exposes him or her to COVID-19, the state may conclude that the work is not suitable, if permitted under the state's suitable work provisions."

Likewise, a worker who refuses suitable work for certain virus-related reasons outlined in the CARES Act or who declines for "good cause" under state law may be eligible to collect, Pallasch added. The letter, however, does not say what would be considered good cause.

Tuesday's guidance is the ETA's third answering of novel questions posed by state unemployment administrators, following letters released in early and late April. Among other topics, it tackles questions about determining workers' initial and continued eligibility for benefits and states' mechanisms for rooting out and punishing fraud. The letter comes 10 days before the $600 increase expires, though lawmakers currently are debating a stimulus measure that may extend the boosted benefits.

A worker who becomes unemployed for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 and can't find work because businesses have closed or aren't hiring cannot collect PUA benefits, which are triggered by certain specific, pandemic-related circumstances outlined in the CARES Act, Pallasch said.

These circumstances include the worker coming down with the coronavirus or needing to care for a stricken family member in their household. But "not being able to find a job because some businesses have closed and/or may not be hiring due to COVID-19 is not an identified reason," Pallasch added.

And workers who quit their jobs for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 may be able to collect through CARES Act provisions extending benefits to workers who aren't eligible for regular unemployment, Pallasch said. Though workers who quit their jobs can't collect regular benefits, Pallasch wrote, they may qualify if they're now out of work for the virus-related reasons listed in the CARES Act.

The letter also answered a handful of questions about fraud, including how states can investigate suspicious claims under the PUA, which confers benefits to workers who self-certify their eligibility. Pallasch described several tools states can use, including a joint DOL-National Association of State Workforce Agencies data center that lists suspicious email address domains and allows states to cross-reference suspicious claims with claims from other states.

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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