In Some States that Are Reopening, Workers Face an Ultimatum: Go Back to Work or Lose Unemployment

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Route Fifty on 5/4/2020 by Emma Coleman

Leaders in at least a handful of states have made clear there will be limits on who can claim unemployment and general worker concerns about safety likely won’t pass muster.

As some states begin to reopen their economies beyond just essential businesses, many workers remain leery about the prospect of returning to work due to warnings from public health officials that reopening efforts are moving too fast. In a confusing new world, with a patchwork of laws potentially offering some protection, previously laid off workers now have questions as to whether they can be legally forced back to work. In a handful of states, however, state leaders have made clear they face an ultimatum: get back to work or lose unemployment payments.

In the effort to reopen parts of the Iowa economy, Gov. Kim Reynolds last week laid out the rules to the staff of restaurants, malls, gyms, and retail stores that reopened last Friday.

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” said Reynolds, a Republican. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

Similar situations are playing out across the country.

State leaders in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas all said that workers should not count on receiving an unemployment check if their employer decides to reopen and they are offered their old jobs back. In Ohio and Iowa, the state is asking businesses to get in on the enforcement efforts and report workers who decline an offer to return. The Georgia Department of Labor said that “feeling unsafe in the workplace” will not qualify someone for unemployment.

But some workers in reopening industries say their decision to go back to work or not is anything but “voluntary.”

Tyler Stone, a barista in Des Moines, Iowa, told ABC News that he was scared to go back to work last week. Stone has asthma, but fears losing his job or unemployment benefits if he doesn’t show up to work. “I don’t really have a choice,” he said. “If I do the thing that I’m being advised to by my doctor, which is stay home, I lose all my income. I can’t not pay my bills … The governor’s going to get thousands more people sick and killed in the name of ‘getting Iowans back work,’ meanwhile, those who are most vulnerable have had the rug pulled out from under them and been given an ultimatum of risking their health at work or staying home without income.”

The Iowa Policy Project, a liberal-leaning state policy research center, disputed the legality of giving workers that ultimatum. In a statement released April 30, IPP executive director Mike Owen said that Reynolds is “misrepresenting workers’ legal protections during the health emergency” because the Iowa Administrative Code allows employees to collect unemployment benefits if they leave due to unsafe working conditions or “any change that would jeopardize the worker’s safety, health or morals.”

“The rules clearly protect workers who want to go back to work, but will find themselves in a new, dangerous situation in the workplace—our new world with the deadly spread of Covid-19,” Owen said. “The Governor’s comments have the effect of bullying workers into work arrangements that they could never have expected. [Workers should] not cast aside the rights they have under Iowa law just because the Governor goes to a microphone and says otherwise.”

The state’s director of workforce development, Beth Townsend, said there will be exceptions to give some workers flexibility. People who have  been infected with coronavirus or live with someone in their household who has been, along with those in high-risk medical categories, can still qualify for unemployment if they choose not to return to work. Still, Townsend said that “it may be difficult to establish a good faith basis to quit due to safety concerns” if employers are following guidelines for a safe work environment. Townsend added that it will take “more than a mere assertion by the employee” to prove that a workplace is unsafe.

Similar measures are taking hold in other states, as well. Texas, for example, is exempting workers older than 65 or those who live with people who are elderly and at-risk, those in a two-week quarantine for direct exposure to Covid-19, and those whose child care options are closed. Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement that the state must ensure people who cannot get back to work safely stay home. “This flexibility in the unemployment benefit process will help ensure that Texans with certain health and safety concerns will not be penalized for choosing not to return to work,” he said.

Another concern of some officials is that employees will employ a simple calculus when deciding whether or not to return to their workplaces: will they make more in wages, or on unemployment? Typically, those receiving unemployment make less than what they would if they were working, but the recently passed federal stimulus package changed that equation, with unemployed people now eligible to receive an additional $600 per week until the end of July. Roughly half of all workers on unemployment are making more than they did before the pandemic. U.S. Sen. Rick Scott spoke about the issue last week, tweeting that some workers, “if given the chance to make more on a government program than in a job … will make the rational and reasonable decision to delay going back to work, hampering our economic recovery.”

In Oklahoma, where the minimum wage is $7.25 and many workers are making more on unemployment, Teresa Thomas Keller, the deputy director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said that the state may stop sending residents the additional $600 per week from the CARES Act. “If it was a huge problem, and we felt like people were taking advantage, we could cut it off,” she said.

As states reopen, decisions by state leaders on what to allow with unemployment will affect millions of workers. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic, but there may be a significantly higher number of recently unemployed people due to an enormous backlog of unprocessed claims at state offices, long wait times at overwhelmed call centers, and crashed online claim forms.

Progressive leaders have argued one way for businesses to lure back employees currently making more on unemployment is to simply pay people more. But while that could be an option for large retailers that have retained profits during the pandemic, it won’t be an easy lift for small businesses, especially those like restaurants that operate on razor-thin margins and are now required to operate at reduced capacity. Some states are offering essential employees hazard pay for working a certain number of hours each week, but such efforts are varied, and may not cover employees of unessential businesses, like gyms and barbershops, that have begun to reopen in certain places. Other states are scrambling to ensure that businesses take protective measures to create a safe work environment.

A group of 29 Senate Democrats last week called for the U.S. Department of Labor to create guidelines and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that reopening businesses are safe for workers to return to. “Employers need clear guidance on what they should do to ensure safe workplaces,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such protections are a matter of life-and-death for the workers themselves but are also vital to ensuring workplaces are not hotbeds of infection endangering workers, customers, and their families and communities.”