Unemployed workers face a choice between safety and money as states reopen

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Americans may soon face a stark choice as more states begin to reopen their doors: Go back to work and risk catching the coronavirus, or stay home and lose unemployment aid.

As governors allow more businesses and retail stores to come back online, employers will begin calling back workers who had been laid off or furloughed and were eligible for unemployment benefits. If they refuse the offer to return to work out of fear for their health amid the pandemic, federal guidelines dictate that they will lose the aid that many have only just started to receive.

At the same time, if they do go back, they’ll be returning to workplaces where safety precautions might be a patchwork at best. The Trump administration has so far declined to issue mandatory regulations at the federal level. The White House’s plan for reopening the country advised employers to follow best practices like social distancing and wearing protective equipment, but experts say more detailed, science-based guidelines are needed to inform businesses across the country how to reopen their doors.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday shrugged off the need for more specific federal guidance, saying it’s up to the states. “We want the governors to call those shots,” he said at a roundtable with industry executives at the White House.

Republicans in Congress are also seeking to expand liability protections for businesses to shield them from coronavirus-related lawsuits — a push that, if successful, could reduce the incentive for some employers to worry about workers’ health before reopening.

Public health experts and labor advocates fear the result is that opening the economy will drive Americans back to work in search of a paycheck but leave them vulnerable to catching the coronavirus and fueling a second wave of the disease. The dilemma faces everyone from meatpacking workers at plants that Trump ordered to reopen this week to restaurant employees in states like Georgia that have been at the forefront of the push to get the country running again.

“They will be terrified, and in many cases, they will be correct to be terrified,” said David Michaels, who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration. “It’s not fair for them to be asked to choose between their income and their health.”

The push in some states to reopen comes as more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in just over a month, a number expected to rise by another few million when the Labor Department releases new weekly data Thursday morning. Layoffs and furloughs have hit nearly every industry, but the leisure and hospitality sector has suffered the most.

Once they start receiving unemployment benefits, workers are required by statute to accept any suitable offers of work; turning one down would mean losing eligibility for further aid. It’s a federal rule but one that states are given broad leeway to carry out.

As they roll out plans to reopen, some states like Colorado are trying to find ways to ensure workers can stay on unemployment benefits if their workplaces are genuinely unsafe. But a growing number of states have made clear that refusing to return to work because of concerns of catching Covid-19 is not an acceptable reason to stay home.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds said doing so would be considered a “voluntary quit” and emphasized that employers must report such incidents to the state’s Workforce Development agency. South Carolina and Tennessee both have notices on their websites noting that workers refusing to return will lose unemployment aid the same week they turn down an offer. And in Georgia — which began its push to reopen so early that even Trump criticized it as “too soon” — the state Department of Labor is encouraging employers to work with employees to negotiate a back-to-work plan both parties can live with, acknowledging that workers otherwise are out of luck.

“There are many reasons that an employee could potentially be eligible for unemployment. Feeling unsafe in the workplace is not one,” said Kersha Cartwright, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Labor. “It sounds harsh, but that’s in the guidelines.”

There are some exceptions that allow employees to turn down offers to return to work and continue receiving aid. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under the CARES Act, for example, extended benefits to Americans unable to work for a host of pandemic-related reasons, including because they or someone they are taking care of is sick with the coronavirus.

Workers could also try to argue that conditions are no longer safe “and try to refuse work in the first place instead of going in,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. “That might be a hard case to make in some states, though.”

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