General manager Carlos Crow hangs a sign at Steiner’s, A Nevada Style Pub shortly before opening for business for the first time since closing on March 17 in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on May 22, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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The ability to quit or refuse a job and continue getting unemployment benefits has been in play in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.
While workers are able to do this in certain cases even in normal times, a federal relief package enacted in March offers more leeway.
But it could be harder for Americans to refuse job offers and continue tapping unemployment aid in coming weeks and months, as states start reopening their economies more fully, experts said.
Collecting benefits may also be less appealing when enhanced aid runs out next month.
“There is no simple answer,” said Stephen Woodbury, an economist at Michigan State University. “The handling of ‘quits’ — and by extension refusal to return to work when recalled — varies by state.”
‘Good cause’ to quit
The question of benefits in instances of quitting or work refusal is playing out amid the worst employment crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Around 21 million Americans are out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many millions more are likely unaccounted for.
However, more than 15 million of those workers are furloughed, meaning they expect to be recalled eventually. And 2.5 million Americans went back to work in May.
Generally, people can’t get unemployment benefits if they quit or refuse a work offer, experts say. However, they may be eligible if they can show there was “good cause” to refuse suitable work.
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Barry White, a spokesman at California’s Employment Development Department, which administers unemployment benefits for workers in the state, explained it this way: Good cause exists when a “substantial motivating factor” causing a resignation was “real, substantial, and compelling and would cause a reasonable person who genuinely wants to stay employed to quit under the same circumstances.”
Let’s say a worker has typical daytime hours, perhaps from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and has family care responsibilities in the evenings. The employer demands a shift change to night hours, from 4 p.m. to midnight.
This worker could likely quit and collect unemployment, Woodbury said.
Unsafe work conditions can also be a qualifying factor.
But the worker has a duty to try to “preserve [the] employment relationship” — i.e., hash things out with the their boss — before quitting, White said.
CARES Act unemployment expansion
The CARES Act law expanded the range of “good cause” possibilities to include reasons related to Covid-19.
Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity lists several qualifying reasons on its website. For example, if a worker:
• is in self-quarantine due to being immuno-compromised. (This may include people over 65 years old, those with certain conditions like cancer, heart disease or diabetes, and with treatments like steroids and chemotherapy);
• has Covid-19 symptoms, came in contact with someone over the past 14 days who tested positive, or is required to care for someone who tested positive;
• is unable to do their job temporarily due to coronavirus-related medical complications; or
• has a family care responsibility without access to an alternative (for example, child care if schools or summer arrangements are closed).
States also generally allow workers to collect benefits if a business hasn’t complied with state or federal guidance for safely reopening in their industry, or the worker believes the workplace is unsafe.
Importantly, though, workers can’t turn down a job because of general fear of Covid-19 or dislike of their job.
Some experts believe it will be difficult to continue collecting benefits as states reopen their economies.
“If they come to a workplace and say, you’re not cleaning or requiring people to wear masks, they may have a good case,” said Stephen Wandner, an economist and senior fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance. “But if you get called back, it’ll be hard for you to refuse work.”
Some states will likely be stricter than others when it comes to determining eligibility in these scenarios, said Wandner, formerly an actuary at the Labor Department.
States most likely to interpret the rules more narrowly are those that pay benefits to a relatively small share of their unemployed population, he said.
For example, Florida and North Carolina pay jobless benefits to around 11% of their unemployed workers, whereas New Jersey pays them to more than half, according to a report published in January by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Collecting benefits after quitting or refusing work without good cause would be considered fraud, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
This worker would be ineligible for additional benefits, would have to pay back benefits received and would be subject to criminal prosecution, the DOL said.
However, states have limited resources to investigate fraud amid millions of new unemployment claims being filed each week since mid-March. Staff will likely have more bandwidth to investigate fraud as the crisis eases, experts say.
And employers generally have an incentive to report a worker’s job refusal. Otherwise, the taxes they pay into a state’s unemployment trust fund may increase, according to economists.
Businesses that receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program must report such instances in order to have their loan fully forgiven by the federal government.
Workers may feel greater urgency to accept a job offer or remain in the workforce after July 31, when the federal government will stop paying a $600-a-week supplement to state unemployment benefits. If the aid expires as planned, unemployment benefits will generally replace less than half of workers’ prior wages.