As Ohio begins the process of reopening workplaces shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has created a tool for employers to report employees who quit or refuse to return to work and attempt to collect unemployment.
State officials say people are not eligible for unemployment if they quit their job or refuse an offer to return to work unless they can prove there is “good cause” to not work.
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“It’s a case by case basis, but if you’re just saying ‘I’m afraid of the virus,’ that would not be sufficient. The analysis would need to be that your work environment, the conditions there, are such that you are at risk from a health and safety standard,” said ODJFS Director Kimberly Hall in response to a reporter’s question Monday.
The new online tool for employers is on the ODJFS website under "Report COVID-19 Employee Fraud" and asks questions such as whether the business was deemed essential and whether the employer maintains safety standards required by the Ohio Governor's Office.
State and federal changes to unemployment amid the pandemic greatly expand who can qualify. This can include people told to stay home by a doctor, or who can’t return to work because of a lack of child care because of the pandemic.
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“It’s not a hard and fast rule but if your job is offered to you, you’re supposed to go back to work. There is a list of exemptions for that,” said Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted on Friday.
Individuals who feel their workplace presents an unsafe working environment can report those conditions to their local health departments, state officials said.
“It is our expectation that in most situations employers and employees will be able to work together to ensure a safe environment for employees to return to work,” said ODJFS spokesman Bret Crow.
Bob Robenhalt, a Columbus-based employment attorney, said he has heard from clients who are employers voice concerns that workers will try to stay on unemployment because of a weekly $600 bump to unemployment checks added as part of the federal CARES Act.
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“The dilemma you have is situations where you have an employee maybe making more on unemployment than they did with their normal wages,” he said.
ODJFS Director Hall pointed out that the $600 weekly increase only runs through July.
“You don’t want to risk your continued employment for the sake of that benefit which will end,” she said.
The process for determining if someone has “good cause” to not work existed before the pandemic. It includes getting input from both the employer and employee to make a determination that can then be appealed to the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission.
“(We) have not seen to date any rapid influx of issues or complaints surrounding returning to work,” Hall said.
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But many workplaces have yet to reopen and call back employees. Retail stores are set to start reopening May 14, and bars and restaurants have no set full reopening date.
More than 1 million Ohioans have applied for unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hall said Monday the state has paid out $1.7 billion in unemployment claims to 515,000 people since March 15.
But as state officials try to identify people improperly collecting unemployment, frustration persists from people who say they haven’t been able to get their legitimate claims processed. This includes Julienne Caldwell of Dayton who said her husband has been trying to collect unemployment for a month.
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“(My) husband tried calling 10 times one day and got cut off by the phone tree many times,” she wrote in an email to the Dayton Daily News. “Tried online chat twice, says info is wrong and to call. Tried by phone again, no option for callback. Even tried selecting a non-English phone option.”
“(He) will probably be called back to work before signed up for back wages.”
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