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States Urge Employers: Report Workers Not Returning to Jobs (1)

May 6, 2020, 3:25 PMUpdated: May 6, 2020, 7:25 PM

Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa are among at least a half dozen states that want companies to report employees who refuse to return to work during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure they can’t get jobless benefits.

In Missouri, where a plan to let businesses gradually reopen took effect Monday, a state labor department website tells employers to “report quits or work refusals as soon as possible.” Ohio and Iowa have set up online forms for employers to flag employees who won’t come back to work.

As businesses begin to reopen, a growing number of states that also include South Carolina and Oklahoma are reminding workers that refusing a job for fear of contracting the coronavirus will disqualify them from unemployment benefits. Workers who continue to claim those benefits may even be committing fraud, Alabama’s labor department warned workers late last month.

In at least some states, providing employers a way to report workers who refuse job offers isn’t a new part of states’ unemployment systems.

“We have always allowed employers to report ‘refusal to work’ issues. This has been a disqualifying issue before Covid,” said Tara Hutchison, spokeswoman for Alabama’s labor department. “Of course, we are also looking to combat fraud in any way we can.”

More than 30 million U.S. workers have filed initial claims for unemployment benefits since mid-March, costing states and the federal government billions of dollars in benefits. The push to reopen businesses from the White House and a number of states across the country could put workers in the difficult position of choosing between their jobs or their safety, as they worry about the spread of the virus.

U.S. Labor Department guidance “does make clear that basic fear of exposure won’t be enough to refuse suitable work,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for expanded worker protections and benefits.

“But we’re attacking the angle of what suitable work is,” she added, arguing that workers could make a case for benefits if they feel their workplace isn’t operating safely.

Recent Labor Department guidance casts doubt on that argument—noting an offer for a laid-off employee to get their job back generally would count as a suitable work offer.

Special Circumstances

Despite the warnings, there are some circumstances in which workers fearful about returning to the job can still get unemployment benefits, varying somewhat from state to state.

In Texas, the state’s workforce commission said employees could refuse work and still qualify if they or a member of their household are 65 or older or have been diagnosed with Covid-19, if they’re quarantined due to close contact with someone who had the disease, or if they lack child care because their child’s school or daycare center is closed.

Georgia’s labor department has publicized similar criteria, but its website notes that employers shouldn’t file those claims on behalf of individuals who choose to stay home. The individuals must file those claims themselves, which tends to be a slower and less-certain path to receiving benefits than employer-filed claims.

Josh Benton, the head of Kentucky’s education and workforce development department, emphasized flexibility for workers in public remarks Tuesday, citing continued eligibility for workers lacking child care because of school closures.

“Also, if an individual is in an at-risk category because of a health issue or age, they do not have to return to work,” he said at a press conference.

Kentucky, like many other states, is working to combat work-site coronavirus outbreaks, including at an Amazon distribution center and a few meat processing facilities where workers have said they fear working conditions put them at risk of infection. An Amazon spokeswoman noted the company temporarily closed the Kentucky facility at the order of the governor and invested in workplace safety upgrades.

Still, it’s up to individual state agencies to make the decision to grant or deny benefits. Workers whose claims are denied often face a lengthy appeals process.

“Each UI benefits case is currently evaluated on an individual basis,” the Texas Workforce Commission said in its April 30 memo.

With reporting assistance from Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio

(Updated with additional reporting in paragraphs four and five and about Amazon near end)

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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