On January 22, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14002 Economic Relief Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Concurrently with the Executive Order, the White House released a fact sheet calling on the Department of Labor (DOL) to consider clarifying unemployment insurance guidance for workers who refuse to return to unsafe working conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The DOL took up that directive and on February 25, 2021 the Department issued new guidance expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits to individuals that refuse to return to work due to unsafe working conditions caused by COVID-19.
The new guidance addresses eligibility for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Program under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Individuals are only eligible for PUA benefits if they are not eligible for regular unemployment compensation, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or Extended Benefits, and are unemployed, partially unemployment, or unable or unavailable to work due to a specific COVID-19 related reason.
Under the new guidance, eligibility for unemployment insurance is expanded to three categories of workers.
First, the new guidance covers individuals who refuse to return to work or accept an offer of new work that is unsafe. Refusal to return to work or accept an offer of new work must be because the worksite is not in compliance with local, state, or federal health and safety standards related to COVID-19. This includes, but is not limited to, failure to (1) require the use of facial mask, (2) maintain physical distancing measures, or (3) provide personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines.
Second, the guidance covers certain individuals providing services to educational institutions or educational service agencies. This category includes school employees working without reasonable assurance of continued employment or who face reduce paychecks because of school closures due to COVID-19.
Third, the guidance also covers individuals that have been laid off or who have had their work hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic. Previously, individuals were only deemed eligible for PUA if their place of employment was closed. Now, individuals laid off because their place of employment is partially closed or who have experienced a reduction in hours are eligible to receive the benefit.
These new guidelines apply retroactively, which means that they apply as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program. Furthermore, the DOL has emphasized that these guidelines do not apply to workers who quit their job because of COVID-19 concerns. Instead, the new guidance only covers individuals who were already receiving unemployment but determined to be ineligible under state laws because they refused an offer of work.
The Department of Labor’s new guidance can be found here.
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