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Published: Apr 30, 2020 8 min read
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It's been six weeks since Shannon had a normal shift.

A home health care worker, she stopped seeing her patient — an elderly man with lung problems — when the coronavirus outbreak reached her state of Missouri. She's been occasionally running errands for him, buying nonperishable food items to drop off on his porch, but she's struggling financially. Applying for unemployment online took her a month, and her bills are piling up. (Shannon's last name is being withheld for privacy reasons.)

Starting Monday, Missouri is set to reopen. But as desperate for money as she may be, Shannon isn't ready to return to her job. Because her patient is at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, she doesn't think it's wise.

"I refuse to go back to work and put my client in danger," she says. "I don't want to [return] until it's safe, and we won't know if it's safe until we test a lot, lot more."

Though the pandemic isn't over, states like Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee are beginning to resume business as usual. Governors there are allowing restaurants, gyms and hair salons to open their doors for the first time in weeks, which may seem like good news for the millions of unemployed Americans in need of work.

But the states haven't all satisfied the White House's guidelines for reopening, raising questions about whether it's truly safe for employees like Shannon to return to work — and what happens if they don't.

Can you refuse to work out of fear for your own health and others'? Can you still get unemployment if you decline work due to the coronavirus? Here's what we know.

You May Lose Unemployment If You Refuse to Work

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, says getting unemployment insurance is typically predicated upon a person being able and available to work. So if you're offered suitable work and you refuse, you generally lose your chance at unemployment.

"Unfortunately, workers are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to a refusal of suitable work, regardless of their fears," Evermore says.

Lawmakers have spoken more bluntly about what's at stake. In an April 22 news release, Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington specifically reminded people that turning down work "could potentially disqualify claimants from receiving unemployment insurance benefits."

"It’s important for workers to know that if their employer reopens or otherwise calls them back to work, they must do so, unless they have a good work-related cause for not returning," Washington says.

There Are Some Exceptions for Coronavirus Unemployment

The CARES Act set up a program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, under which some of the normal unemployment rules are loosened. Benefits are extended to some groups of people who might not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.

This is not an exhaustive list, but you can access benefits if you're unemployed, partially unemployed, unable or unavailable to work for the following reasons:

  • you've been diagnosed with the coronavirus
  • you're experiencing coronavirus symptoms and you're trying to get a diagnosis
  • a member of your household has the coronavirus
  • you're the caregiver for a family member or person in your household who has the coronavirus
  • you're the primary caregiver for a child who can't attend school or a household member who can't go to "another facility" because they're closed due to the coronavirus (and you can't work unless they're taken care of)
  • you can't reach your workplace because of quarantine
  • you can't go to work because a doctor told you to self-quarantine
  • you had to quit your job as a direct result of the coronavirus
  • your workplace is closed because of the coronavirus

All of these give a person who might not feel comfortable returning to work a little bit of latitude, says Steve Woodbury, an economics professor at Michigan State University.

"The legislation is taking account of a lot of the unusual circumstances that have come up," he says.

However, meeting at least one of those requirements is crucial for qualifying for unemployment. As the U.S. Department of Labor website notes, "Voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for PUA."

What If You Think Your Workplace Is Dangerous?

Some states have good-cause quit or refusal clauses that let you still be eligible for unemployment in certain situations, like if work endangers your health and safety.

Evermore points out that there are also federal standards around “prevailing conditions of work” — namely, that someone shouldn't be denied unemployment if they decline work because "the wages, hours, or other conditions of the work offered are substantially less favorable to the individual than those prevailing for similar work in the locality."

A person could theoretically argue that her work conditions are generally unsafe due to the outbreak, but "that might be a hard case to make in some states," Evermore adds.

The Department of Labor says to report an employer if their response to the possible spread of the coronavirus "creates a serious safety hazard."

"If you go into work and they're not providing you with protective equipment or forcing you to do something that's unsafe, you can complain to your boss," Evermore says. "And if they don't do anything about it, you can complain to the [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]."

Lying About Unemployment Is Probably a Bad Idea

Bob Robenalt, a partner at the labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips, says the CARES Act has made it so some people are earning more money on unemployment than they previously were at their jobs. This may be another factor disincentivizing going back to work.

Though unemployment relies on self-certification, it's not an invitation to lie. Robenalt says officials are "going to look at fraud for individuals who might try to get this benefit if they have work made available for them." That's especially true because of the $600-per-week payment the CARES Act tacks on to unemployment compensation through July.

"That $600 is all federal money, so the federal government has an interest in it," he adds.

In fact, they're already on it. Last week, the Office of the Inspector General released a report saying the Employment and Training Administration "needs to establish methods to detect fraud and recover improper payments."

"ETA now needs to focus the expenditure of CARES Act funding on eligible recipients only, enabling the funding to impact a greater population of those in need," it writes.

Because Shannon's work arrangement is an individual one, and not through an agency, it may seem like it falls into a gray area. But she remains adamant about not wanting to return to her job just yet — despite the fact that if her employer calls her back and she resists, she could be sacrificing her much-needed unemployment.

"I'm not going to be responsible for possibly ending someone else's life in order to go back to work," Shannon says. "I couldn't have that on my conscience."

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Coronavirus and Unemployment: Everything You Need to Know

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Money's Guide to Applying for Unemployment if You're a Freelancer, Independent Contractor or Self-Employed