The Biden Administration is expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits for workers who feel they are forced to choose between working in an unsafe environment and refusing work to avoid the risk of coronavirus infection.
The U.S. Department of Labor is issuing guidance to state unemployment insurance agencies that expands the number of instances in which workers may be eligible for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which is federally funded but administered by state agencies.
DOL said those who do not return to work or accept a job offer over concerns about workplace exposure often lose their state unemployment benefits.
“Today’s guidance opens the door to relief for workers who have faced difficult, if not impossible, choices between accepting employment in an unsafe workplace to receive a steady source of income, and protecting their health and that of their loved ones,” said Patricia Smith, senior advisor to the Secretary of Labor in an announcement.
The new guidance expands eligibility to three categories of workers:
- Workers receiving unemployment benefits who had their continued regular unemployment claims denied after they refused to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite not in compliance with coronavirus health and safety standards.
- Workers laid off, or who have had their work hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic.
- School employees working without a contract or reasonable assurance of continued employment who face reduced paychecks and no assurance of continued pay when schools are closed due to coronavirus.
A Census Bureau data collection taken February 3-15, 2021, found that of the almost 108 million people not working at that time, 5.1 million said they were not working because they were concerned about getting or spreading the coronavirus. Another 3.2 million of those not working said they were sick with coronavirus symptoms and 1 million said they were caring for someone with symptoms of the virus.
The census data also shows that that about 249 million households lost their employment income since March 13, 2020 and almost 58 million expect to lose their income within the next few weeks.
The new coronavirus-related reasons are retroactive – they apply as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program. However, there are some limitations for individuals filing their first initial PUA claim.
DOL said the Biden Administration will provide state systems with funds needed to update their systems to enable retroactive payments. DOL acknowledged that implementing these changes will take time and that the earliest this expanded eligibility will be available is the end of March.
Top Photo: A worker sprays disinfectant at an office building. Photographer: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
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