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Labor Department Expands Unemployment Eligibility to Workers Who Decline Job Offer Out of Safety Concerns

  • Department of Labor expands eligibility for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
  • Workers who decline to accept a job due to concerns over an employers’ failure to abide by COVID-19 safety protocols can now collect benefits under the program
  • Eligibility also expands to certain school employees and workers who lost their job or had their hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

Workers who declined a job offer or refused to return to a place of employment due to concerns that the business was not following proper safety protocols are eligible to collect federal unemployment benefits under new Department of Labor guidance.

In response to a directive from President Joe Biden, the DOL informed state unemployment insurance agencies that it has expanded eligibility for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Established at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program provides federal unemployment benefits to people who typically wouldn’t qualify for state aid, such as self-employed workers or independent contractors. It also applies to various other people who are unable to work due to certain effects of COVID-19, such as parents who need to provide caregiving duties due to the closure of a school or daycare.

The expansion opens PUA to workers who lost benefits after they refused to return to work or accept a job offer because the potential employer was not in compliance with federal, state, or local COVID-19 safety standards. These could include companies failing to abide by mask mandates, sanitizing requirements, or social distancing. Beneficiaries must attest, under the penalty of perjury, to the truth of this assertion.

Approximately 37,000 people were denied unemployment benefits last year after losing a job and then refusing to return to work due to safety concerns. However, the guidance does not seem to benefit those who voluntarily quit their job due to health concerns related to the pandemic; about 1.23 million workers did so in 2020.

Workers who were laid off or had their hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic are also eligible for PUA under the new rules. Previous guidance required that a business had to be closed for its workers to collect benefits from the program, but they are now able to do so if their employment has been affected even if the business remains open.

In addition, the expansion supports school employees who do not have a contract or a reasonable assurance of continued employment who face a loss of income when schools are closed due to COVID-19. Parents who quit due to the need to provide child care but haven’t been able to return to work after their child’s school or child care center reopened are also eligible.

PUA is federally funded and administered by state unemployment agencies. The rules are retroactive, but the Department of Labor anticipates that expanded eligibility won’t be available until late March as state agencies adjust to the new guidance. Eligible applicants will receive benefits retroactive to the date of eligibility, although those filing their first initial PUA claim after Dec. 27, 2020, are limited to weeks of unemployment beginning on or after Dec. 6.

The new guidance also requires states to allow applicants to choose more than one reason why they are out of work. This could potentially leave them eligible for federal benefits even if one reason ceases to be applicable.

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