Called back to work during COVID-19

Can you refuse because of safety concerns and still collect unemployment?

As more and more states begin to loosen the shelter in place orders, many businesses are getting ready to re-open, and employees are being asked to return to work. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some employees fear that their workplace is not safe and has not taken the necessary precautions, putting them and their family in risk of contracting the virus.

These employees, in many cases, are currently collecting unemployment, including the $600 from the federal assistance program. If such an employee refuses to return to work, citing safety concerns, would he lose his or hers unemployment benefits?

Refusing to return to work could indeed put an employee's unemployment benefits at risk, as one of the pinnacles of unemployment is that you have to work if work is available. From the employer's point of view, it is of best interest to the employer that you go back to work, as the more you stay on unemployment, the more costly it will be for the employer. Reason being, is that the employer pays Unemployment Insurance premiums to the state. And having a lot of workers collecting on that unemployment insurance for a prolonged period of time would cause the employer's premiums to rise significantly and become very costly.

It is therefore certain that should you refuse to return to work and continue to collect your unemployment benefits, the employer will report to the state's labor department, who in turn will stop your unemployment benefits and even demand you pay back any benefits you collected from the time you first refused to come back to work.

At this point you could try appealing, citing the safety concerns and arguing that the workplace is not a safe environment because it has not taken necessary safety precautions to reduce exposure to COVID-19. As many businesses have just started to reopen, this can still be considered a sort of uncharted territory and there is not much data currently on whether your state's department of labor would consider this a valid reason for not returning to work. What's certain, your refusal should be based on specific dangerous conditions rather than just general COVID-19 concerns, and you should document everything in order to present your case before your state's unemployment office.

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