Congress created special unemployment benefits so that laid-off workers could stay home while the coronavirus pandemic rages outside, but the Trump administration wants states to make sure that nobody’s getting benefits if they could be at work.
The US Department of Labor has told states, which implement unemployment insurance programs according to federal rules, that they should ask employers to notify the state if someone turns down an offer to come back to work.
In a guidance memo on Monday evening, the Labor Department said “states are strongly encouraged to request employers to provide information when workers refuse to return to their jobs for reasons that do not support their continued eligibility for benefits.”
The guidance comes as President Donald Trump is calling on states to lift restrictions on commerce so that the economy might get back on track ahead of the November election, even though the national death toll from COVID-19 is still rising at a brisk pace.
“We have to be warriors,” Trump said last week. “We can’t keep our country closed down for years.”
Several Republican-led states have already said business can resume and specifically warned that workers can’t receive unemployment benefits if their employer wants them back. At the same time, states are still struggling with the basic task of distributing benefits.
Several laid-off workers have told HuffPost that they’re still waiting for payments, including some who filed their claims more than a month ago. Millions of workers have probably not been paid, said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
The government’s “responsibility is to pay for weeks of unemployment compensation when the payments are due,” Stettner said, noting that the federal standard for acceptable performance is that 87% of benefits are paid within 21 days ― a standard that has likely not been met.
More than 30 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits in the last six weeks, an unprecedented surge in claims. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided an extra $600 per week in unemployment compensation and made independent contractors and the self-employed eligible for benefits for the first time. The new policies forced states to attempt to quickly update antiquated computer systems.
To reduce its backlog of claims, California tried suspending a requirement that claimants repeatedly certify that they are still eligible for benefits. Monday’s Labor Department guidance, however, said states can’t cut people any slack on certification.
Employers are generally encouraged to report anyone on unemployment who refuses an offer of “suitable work” ― this is not a new feature of the program. But the Labor Department is asking for a crackdown on people who decline work offers when it’s not clear if the definition of “suitable” includes risking exposure to a highly contagious, brand-new virus that is still mysterious to doctors and that has killed more than 82,000 Americans in a matter of weeks.
“If this guidance is going up that people need to be reported for refusing suitable work, then the department should also make it clear that you shouldn’t be offering unsafe work and considering it suitable,” said Michele Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
In an April letter, NELP asked for clarification on the parameters of “suitable work,” pointing to a longstanding regulation that says “a position shall not be deemed to be suitable for an individual if the circumstances present any unusual risk to the health, safety, or morals of the individual.”
In a followup letter on Tuesday, NELP and more than 200 liberal groups, including the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, called on the Labor Department to clarify the meaning of “suitable work,” saying the department’s “limited and misleading statements on the issue will require countless vulnerable workers to choose between their livelihood and the threat of contracting COVID-19 or exposing their loved ones to the deadly disease.”
The Labor Department has previously said that someone can refuse work and still be eligible for unemployment benefits if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 or if someone at their workplace has received such a diagnosis. Merely refusing to work as a precaution, however, would make a person ineligible for benefits unless a medical professional has advised the person to self-quarantine. (The department has an eligibility Q&A on its website.)
“Donald Trump has no plan to fight the virus, which is why his administration is pushing workers to view themselves as ‘warriors’ and put their lives on the line for the president’s political benefit,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. “Workers should not be forced to choose between their health and their ability to keep food on the table.”