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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

Returning to Work and Unemployment Benefits

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Madison Meltz

As the economy begins to open back up, many are left with the question of whether they should continue to work, return to work, or search for work in the midst of a global pandemic. Specifically, employees are asking: How does my decision concerning whether to go to work impact my eligibility for unemployment benefits such as Unemployment Insurance (UI) or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?

The answer to that question is: it depends. Whether or not someone qualifies, or continues to qualify, for benefits is largely contingent on the reasoning behind why they're choosing not to return to work.

As mandated by the CARES Act, in order to continue to receive benefits, an employee’s refusal to work must be due to a situation directly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples of these circumstances include:

  • The employee needs care-taking services, such as daycare, that are closed due to the pandemic in order to be able to work
  • Stay-at-home orders bar an employee from going to work for a “non-essential” job
  • An employee or a member of her household has been diagnosed with COVID-19

A general fear of contracting COVID-19, in it of itself, is not covered as a reason for not returning to work. Given this, a refusal to go to work, return to work, or search for work due to a general COVID-related concern will likely result in the loss of benefits. However, if an individual believes that the specific conditions of an employer puts her at high risk, the individual can assert that the job does not constitute as “suitable employment” and continue to receive UI benefits. Factors that may be considered include:

  • Degree of risk to an individual’s health and safety
  • The individual’s physical fitness, prior training, and experience

All other reasoning (including situations where more income is generated through continuing with the UI system than when working) is not covered by the CARES act and an employee will likely lose unemployment benefits upon the refusal to return to work. Additionally, employees going back to work in part-time/reduced hour roles may still be eligible for unemployment benefits as further described here. Employees should check with their state UI office for additional information. 

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