Feds expand unemployment for people afraid to return to work because of coronarivus

Ohioans denied unemployment assistance because they refused to work at a jobsite that is unsafe from coronavirus will qualify for benefits and back-pay under a change made this week.

The. U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance Thursday, following a directive from President Joe Biden, to state unemployment agencies expanding eligibility in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

The guidance expands eligibility to three categories of workers:

  • Workers who had their regular unemployment benefits claims denied after they refused to work or to accept an offer of work somewhere not in compliance with coronavirus health and safety standards.
  • Workers laid off or who had their work hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic.
  • School employees working without a contract or reasonable assurance of continued employment whose pay was cut when schools closed due to coronavirus.

The determination that a workplace is unsafe will be based on the attestation of the worker, made under risk of perjury.

If a worker had unpaid claims prior to Dec. 27, he or she can apply for benefits retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic, including the now-expired extra $600 weekly payments when they were provided.

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If someone filed their initial PUA claim after Dec. 27, they can claim benefits back to Dec. 6.

“Our nation cannot afford to continue compounding the already devastating effects of the ongoing pandemic-related economic crisis by leaving workers destitute and living in fear for their health and their lives,” said Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Labor Patricia Smith.

“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.”

The PUA program is federally funded, but administered by state agencies, such as the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. The changes will take time for states to put into place, federal officials said, and the expanded benefits probably won’t be available before the end of March.

“ODJFS is committed to working with our federal partners and we are currently reviewing the new guidance,” ODJFS spokesman Tom Betti said in a statement.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in June 2020 signed an executive order creating five new pandemic-related reasons constituting “good cause” to refuse work. One of them is, “tangible evidence of a health and safety violation by the employer that does not allow the employee to practice social distancing, hygiene and wearing protective equipment.”

ODJFS guidance states that, “tangible evidence could include, but is not limited to photographs, written policies, employee statements/affidavits. Tangible evidence is not met by the individual’s uncorroborated statement alone.”

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Federal officials say they don’t have an estimate of how many people will be affected by the change, but said they expect it to be “significant.”

“Today’s announcement means that the assembly line worker who was receiving unemployment benefits and then lost them when she declined to return to an unsafe workplace, she will now we eligible,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Suzi Levine in a conference call with reporters.

“So will the school bus driver who’s been out of work, off and on, for nearly a year through no fault of their own, and has lost thousands of dollars in essential household income. And so too will the waiter, whose restaurant finally opened, but only for takeout, leaving them without work and without benefits.”

“The common thread among many of those individuals, is that they are individuals often in low wage jobs or from marginalized communities,” Levine said.

U.S. Department of Labor officials said that while expanding the program, they also are focusing on addressing a multibillion dollar fraud problem by giving states money and support to address the issue nationally instead of on state-by-state basis.

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Levine said she agrees with fraud-prevention recommendations included in a recent Department of Labor Office of Inspector General report.

“It is so critical to address the sophisticated criminal attack on our unemployment systems, and it is imperative to not let such callous theft deter us from bolstering our support for America’s workers and families,” she said.

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