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DOL Extends Jobless Benefits to Those Refusing ‘Unsafe’ Work

Feb. 25, 2021, 10:01 PM

Laid-off workers who refused to return to a job they considered unsafe during the pandemic should have an easier time getting federally funded jobless benefits, under new guidance from the U.S. Labor Department.

The program letter issued to state unemployment agencies Thursday delivers on President Joe Biden’s call last month to ensure benefits are available for people who decline work that would jeopardize their health. Labor Department officials told reporters they expect it to take until late March, possibly longer, for state agencies to implement the policy changes.

“The workers and families who give so much to make this nation prosper during boom times, they deserve to be safe and economically secure in this time of dire need,” said Suzi LeVine, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor at the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration. She declined to provide an estimate of how many people would become eligible for benefits under the new guidance.

The benefits eligibility applies to refusal of work at a site that “is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19,” according to the Labor Department’s guidance letter. “This includes, but is not limited to, those related to facial mask wearing, physical distancing measures, or the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines.”

People claiming the benefits will have to attest to the unsafe conditions “under penalty of perjury,” said LeVine.

How states ultimately will implement the policy remains to be seen. A number of state agencies alerted unemployment claimants last year that a general fear of Covid-19 wouldn’t be sufficient for refusing work and still claiming benefits. They also invited employers to notify the agencies of workers who refused to return after a temporary layoff.

LeVine added the Labor Department is simultaneously stepping up its collaboration with states to prevent fraudulent unemployment claims, which have been rampant throughout the pandemic, including in Washington state where LeVine faced criticism for her leadership of the state unemployment agency before being appointed to her new federal position last month. The department’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Wednesday highlighting the need for stronger fraud prevention efforts nationally.

The expanded eligibility is specific to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance—a category of federally funded benefits created by last year’s CARES Act to cover self-employed people, independent contractors, and other workers who aren’t covered by traditional state-managed unemployment insurance programs.

The new guidelines extend PUA benefits to three categories of workers: those who previously received but then lost traditional unemployment benefits because they refused to return to an unsafe job; those who were laid off or had their hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic; and school employees who aren’t guaranteed continuing pay or employment if their schools close because of the pandemic.

“PUA provides authority to the department to set these eligibility requirements, whereas regular UI is a creature of state law,” said Jim Garner, acting administrator for the federal Office of Unemployment Insurance Organization within the Labor Department.

Depending on the circumstances, claimants could be eligible for retroactive PUA benefits as far back as the week ending Feb. 8, 2020, when the program began.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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