Can Employees Refuse to Work and Still Receive Unemployment Benefits Amid COVID-19?

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As more businesses reopen nationwide, many employers are requiring staff to return to work.

However, some people might not feel safe going back and now fear whether or not they will lose their unemployment benefits.

States are now beginning to lift stay-at-home orders, which means businesses that have been closed during the pandemic are now starting to reopen, reported CNBC. 

A survey conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland reported that 67% of people in the United States would be uncomfortable going into a store, and 78% say they would feel uncomfortable eating at a restaurant.

More than 33.5 million American workers filed for benefits since the stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March across the United States, according to a May 7 report from the Department of Labor.

But as people have to return to work during the pandemic, many are wondering if they are required to risk their safety, and how their choice impacts their unemployment eligibility.

'Suitable work' guidelines for businesses who are reopening and asking employees to return

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidelines intended to protect workers that businesses must adhere to during the pandemic.

Under this federal guidance, the onus is on companies for baseline protections and measures including providing proper hand-washing stations, additional sanitation and personal protective equipment such as masks or gloves, and following social distancing recommendations.

On a local level, states may require additional and stricter standards on top of federal guidelines, such as reducing work capacity or requiring temperature checks. Such measures will vary by location. Workers should refer to guidelines from their state labor department for specific details.

Businesses who follow state, federal, and local safety rules and call their employees back to their jobs, will probably be known as providing “suitable work.”

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, told CNBC that workers could not refuse this type of work and get any unemployment benefits. 

Additionally, guidance on unemployment insurance during COVID-19 from the Department of Labor states that a general fear of contracting the illness among healthy individuals with no dependents is not enough to refuse returning to work.

Protections for workers whose employers aren't providing safe working conditions

If an individual thinks their employer isn’t instating safe policies, Evermore says, “workers could argue that the conditions are no longer safe and try to refuse work in the first place instead of going in.”

According to Evermore, employers must also follow guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which outline a worker’s right to refuse work.

If companies do not follow these guidelines, workers may be able to quit with good cause and possibly be able to claim unemployment benefits.

To show good cause, employees can document dangerous conditions and notify their employers of the need to mitigate hazards. If the employers do not take adequate actions to improve conditions, employees can file a formal complaint with the OSHA.

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