Health Labor Rights

States Tell Workers Return to Work During Pandemic or Lose Unemployment Benefits

Some states, including Iowa and Texas, have begun to reopen their economies amidst the coronavirus pandemic and have warned residents that employees who refuse to return to their jobs will be ineligible for unemployment benefits. These policies force workers to decide between their health and unemployment insurance and could facilitate the spread of COVID-19.

Congress established a pandemic program expanding unemployment eligibility to workers whose employers have temporarily closed, who have been quarantined, or who have to care for family members. But the US Department of Labor has said that concerns about catching COVID-19 only qualify a worker for unemployment insurance if they “have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine as a result of such concerns.” Thus, millions of furloughed and laid-off workers could be left to decide whether to risk returning to work when states allow businesses to reopen.

Texas Governor Greg Abbot permitted stores, malls, and movie theaters to reopen last week, but the state requires workers to be “willing and able to work all the days and hours required for the type of work you are seeking” to qualify for unemployment benefits. After relaxing social distancing measures in most counties, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds told employers that if their workers refuse to return, it would be considered “a voluntary quit. Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.” Tennessee and Oklahoma have adopted similar policies.

While businesses like restaurants and retail stores are desperate for workers, labor activists argue that many people do not want to risk their safety to return to low-paying jobs. But with policies like those in Iowa and Texas, workers will not have much of a choice. “These states are offering people the choice to endanger your life or starve,” said Damon A. Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, the US’s largest federation of labor unions.

 Sources: The Hill 4/28/20; CNN 4/29/20; Newsweek 4/29/20; The Washington Post 4/30/20