State reopening plans in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have led many workers wondering what they mean for their jobs. While workers who have been deemed to be essential-have worked throughout the COVID-19 crisis, businesses that have been deemed to be non-essential have been closed. Some workers have continued working from home, and some companies have used layoffs and furloughs. Some workers are now concerned about receiving calls from their employers notifying them that it is time to return to work. If you are worried about returning to your job because of the pandemic, the attorneys at Swartz Swidler can help you to understand your rights to receive unemployment insurance benefits.
Reasons for not returning to work
There are many different reasons why some employees do not want to return to their jobs. Safety is an obvious concern. Regardless of whether workers are provided with personal protective equipment, there is no guarantee that they will not contract the novel coronavirus. Some workers are also concerned about contracting the virus at their jobs and bringing it home to infect at-risk family members.
Child care is another major reason why some people do not want to return to work. Many schools are opening with remote learning, meaning that parents must figure out how to ensure that their children are cared for while they are at work.
Can you receive unemployment?
Before the pandemic, people who quit their jobs were not eligible to receive unemployment compensation. However, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program expanded the eligibility of workers for unemployment compensation. Eligibility for the PUA was determined by the way that workers answered questions when they certified benefits. However, the PUA expired at the end of July, and Congress has yet to act to extend the program. If it is renewed, the questions that you must answer will likely be the same.
On the website, the first question asks you if you are available and able to work. You should answer yes to this question if you lost your hours or job because of contracting the coronavirus or needing to care for a family member with coronavirus. You should also answer yes if your employment changed because of the pandemic.
You will also be asked if you are actively looking for work. If you are waiting for your employer to recall you or are putting off your job search until the pandemic subsides, you should answer yes. For the third question, you will be asked if you refused work. You can answer no to this question if you refused work because you contracted the virus or because you need to care for a family member who has contracted COVID-19. You can also answer no if you need to care for a child whose school is closed because of the pandemic.
While these instructions might make you believe that you will receive unemployment benefits if you refuse to return to your job, there is no guarantee. There are certain situations in which the state will decide that workers who refuse to return to their jobs are eligible to receive unemployment benefits. However, the instructions for certification are meant for workers who have already been approved for benefits and are not conclusive about whether you would be approved.
If you refuse to return to your job or quit because of a fear of contracting COVID-19, it is not clear if you will be eligible for unemployment compensation. The CARES Act states that workers can receive unemployment benefits if they quit as a result of the coronavirus. However, this has been left to the states to determine. Guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that a worker’s general fear of being exposed to COVID-19 is not a valid reason for unemployment eligibility. However, the DOL has also noted that some circumstances are not clear-cut, including when people have credible and specific health concerns. These cases will likely be addressed on a case-by-case basis as a result.
Employers fighting unemployment applications
If your employer fights your claim for unemployment benefits, the examiner will probably make a decision based on the facts of your case. You should talk to your supervisor and ask him or her whether PPE will be provided and if alternative scheduling is available or if social distancing will be used.
If you talk to your employer and still feel that you do not have a choice other than to quit your job, document what you did to try to resolve your concerns before you decide to quit and apply for unemployment. You should make every effort to show that you have legitimate and serious concerns and are not simply trying to obtain unemployment benefits without a valid reason.
Proving your need to stay home
You may need to present evidence that you need to stay at home instead of returning to your job. You will also have to certify that you remain eligible for benefits to continue receiving them. If you refused to return to work, you must show a substantiated reason for why you did beyond having a general fear of being exposed to the virus. A recommendation from your doctor that you continue to self-quarantine and other medical documentation may be necessary.
Fraud and clawbacks
If you are approved for unemployment benefits but the DOL determines that it made a mistake, you will have to repay the benefits that you have received. If the agency determines that you committed fraud, you may be criminally prosecuted and face incarceration, penalties, and substantial fines. The government may garnish any income tax refund to repay what you owe, and you can be denied benefits for unemployment in the future.
With the expiration of the PUA at the end of July, many people who have been receiving unemployment benefits will now lose a substantial amount of their benefits payments. If Congress passes a law to extend the benefits, you should be prepared to receive a lesser amount.
Contact the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many workers to reevaluate their jobs because of safety and other concerns. If you are considering quitting your job because of the pandemic, you should talk to the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler to learn about your potential eligibility for unemployment benefits. Contact us today by filling out our online contact form or by calling us at 856.685.7420.