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States Grapple With Work-Search Rules as Virus Keeps Surging

Aug. 17, 2020, 9:00 AM

A summertime surge of Covid-19 cases isn’t stopping some states from requiring people who get jobless aid to prove they’re searching for work each week.

Louisiana and Mississippi last week became the latest states to resume enforcing work-search requirements, which many states had waived or modified since March in line with federal virus-response guidance. Arkansas, Missouri, and Nebraska previously resumed enforcing their requirements in June and July, while Colorado did so in late May.

Many other states continue to waive the requirements, including large states that were among the earliest to reopen businesses after virus-inspired shutdowns. Florida, Georgia, and Texas had indicated they likely would resume work-search requirements earlier in the summer before extending the waivers due to ongoing Covid-19 outbreaks.

The requirements represent part of the larger debate over how much leniency and support jobless-aid recipients should be given. Some still face limited job prospects or fear for their health and safety in the workplace, yet business advocates and policymakers in some states are pushing for a widespread return to work.

Unemployment recipients can be denied benefits if they fail to meet a state’s work-search requirements. Research from the National Employment Law Project in 2017 estimated states could be rejecting as many as 24% of unemployment claims for procedural reasons, such as failure to adequately document work searches.

But violations don’t always lead to immediate denial of benefits. U.S. Labor Department data for 2019 indicated states improperly paid $740 million to claimants who didn’t satisfy work-search requirements, accounting for about 2.8% of unemployment payments nationally for the year. That’s in addition to $1 billion in payments to unemployment recipients who received warnings in 2019 for work-search violations, which DOL tracks but doesn’t classify as an overpayment.

‘Bad Policy’

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law March 18, required states to temporarily waive work-search requirements to qualify for additional federal funding for unemployment benefits. But neither the law nor DOL set a universal expiration date for the waivers, leaving the decision up to states.

Louisiana said the July 31 expiration of the $600 weekly unemployment supplement was the right time to resume enforcement.

“We understand the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation has ended. We want to give everyone a chance to get back to work as soon as possible,” a narrator said in a video posted recently on the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s social media accounts.

But Covid-19 still poses a significant health threat, said Dev Wakeley, a worker advocate in neighboring Alabama, which continues to waive its requirements.

For states that opt to reinstate the requirements now, “it’s really a symptom of trying to pretend the pandemic has gone away. It’s not reality-based, and it’s putting people’s lives at risk to force them to go out and work in a pandemic,” said Wakeley, a policy analyst at the advocacy group Alabama Arise. “It’s bad policy, and we don’t want to see it extended to Alabama.”

Alabama hasn’t set a date to resume enforcement, said Tara Hutchison, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) said in a July 6 executive order that resuming work-search rules was a means “to restore prosperity to Nebraskans and to revive Nebraska businesses.” He noted the state had 30,000 job openings at that time, was in Phase 3 of reopening its economy, and had hospital bed and ventilator capacity available.

Shifting Deadlines

Return dates for work-search requirements are a moving target in a number of states where daily numbers of new Covid-19 cases remain stubbornly high.

The Texas Workforce Commission initially announced it would reimpose the requirements in early July, before extending them due to a resurgence of Covid-19 cases. Commission spokesman Cisco Gamez said Aug. 12 the waiver remains in place and that the agency would give at least two weeks’ notice before resuming enforcement.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has extended the waiver multiple times, as virus cases surge and the state’s unemployment rate hovers around 10%. The latest extension runs through Sept. 5.

Georgia’s labor department had expected to consider resuming work-search requirements in May. Instead, the waiver was renewed in mid-July as part of a broader set of extended emergency unemployment regulations. State labor department spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said the waiver is set to continue for 120 days, unless Gov. Brian Kemp (R) allows his public health emergency declaration to expire or the federal Labor Department rescinds states’ authority to waive the requirements.

Although many states didn’t envision continuing waivers for this long, “it’s still a difficult time to have that requirement in place,” said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment policy analyst at left-leaning think tank The Century Foundation.

Many people are having a hard time finding suitable work or even safely searching for work, and states face administrative challenges processing large volumes of unemployment claims, he said. “If people have trouble with the documentation requirements and get kicked off their benefits for it, it’s still hard to get someone on the phone to help,” Stettner said.

Rules, Waivers Vary

Work-search requirements vary from state to state. Unemployment recipients in Georgia must report at least three new job-search contacts per week. Colorado has no minimum requirement for weekly contacts, but tells recipients to keep records of their efforts in case the state audits them.

New York’s unemployment website says aid recipients don’t have to prove work-search if they were laid off due to Covid-19 and the employer plans to call them back when the business reopens or returns to full operation. Otherwise, individuals must search for work and be prepared to show proof.

California’s Employment Development Department says work-search requirements are waived, but that doesn’t mean unemployment recipients can refuse to return to work, for example, if a former employer calls them back.

“If you are not available or willing to accept suitable work, you could be disqualified for benefits, unless you have good cause,” such as lack of child care or an underlying medical problem, said Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the department.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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