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Can you refuse work and still get unemployment benefits? Biden order to clarify new rules

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President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday ordering the Department of Labor to issue guidance that clarifies "workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance."

Generally, you can't refuse what's considered "suitable work," whether it's a new job offer or a call to return to a reopened workplace, and still receive unemployment insurance. In more traditional times, suitable work is thought of as a job that matches your skill set and pays a similar rate as your old one.

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But during the pandemic, the health and safety risks imposed by the coronavirus have blurred what "suitable work" looks like, especially for those who have underlying health conditions or are at higher risk of severe illness from the virus.

Under the Trump administration, states, local governments and employers were often left to determine what constituted as a safe work environment free of risks to workers' health and safety during the Covid pandemic. Recent moves from the Biden White House aim to formalize a national standard.

As with existing protocol, new federal guidance will still require workers to demonstrate how their work environment places their health in jeopardy, that they've done something to raise the issue with their employer to enforce an improved standard, and that their employer has chosen to not act on recommended health and safety guidance, such as that from the CDC, local or state regulations — and soon, federal guidance on workplace health and safety.

For example, you can't just walk into your work facility, see that no one's wearing a mask, walk off the job and later file for unemployment. However, if you approach your boss about enforcing universal mask-wearing to minimize the spread of the virus, and they decline to do so, you may have just cause for refusing unsafe work that places your health in jeopardy and qualifying for unemployment benefits while you look for a new job.

Worker advocates anticipate that firming up state-by-state rules into a federal standard will make it easier for people to realize their right to refuse work if it jeopardizes their health, and know they can still receive jobless aid while they find new work.

The CARES Act also clarified additional reasons someone may need to refuse work and remain eligible for unemployment insurance, such as if they must stay home to provide child care during school and care facility closures, or if they're advised by a health professional to self-isolate due to an underlying medical condition. These individuals may qualify for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance federal program, which currently phases out by mid-April.

It's worth remembering that a general fear of contracting the virus isn't enough of a cause to refuse suitable work.

Stronger health and safety guidelines

Workers also have a right to quit for good cause if their employer doesn't follow safety guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, rules that predate the pandemic and outline a worker's right to refuse dangerous work.

If companies fail to follow those guidelines, and this creates a hazardous working condition, workers may be able to quit with good cause. If it's found that a worker has left an employer due to unsafe working conditions under OSHA guidelines, they may be able to claim unemployment benefits, though eligibility is determined by the state.

With that said, the Trump administration was criticized for what some say was lax enforcement of workplace safety guidance by OSHA during the pandemic, and being slow to issue penalties for violations.

A separate Biden order signed last week calls for OSHA to issue stronger safety guidance for workplaces within the next two weeks. Additionally, the agency will review its enforcement efforts and could create an emergency temporary standard that would mandate requirements such as mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing breaks and communication with workers during outbreaks.

Changes expected within weeks

The Department of Labor is expected to issue guidance about a worker's right to refuse unsafe work and remain eligible for unemployment benefits within the next week or two.

Roughly 900,000 Americans filed new jobless claims last week, and just under 16 million workers are receiving some kind of unemployment assistance. Worker advocates say the latest pushes for stronger income, health and safety protections will support Black, Latino and Native American workers, who are disproportionately more likely to hold jobs that must be done in-person, and are also more likely to experience joblessness with the security of in-person jobs in flux during the pandemic.

"This is a commonsense step to make sure that workers have a right to safe work environments, and that we don't put workers, in the middle of a pandemic, in a position where they have to choose between their own livelihoods and the health of they and their families," said National Economic Council director Brian Deese at the White House Friday.

Biden says his recent actions via executive order are in addition to the $1.9 trillion relief plan proposed earlier in January that would boost federal unemployment pay to $400 per week and extend federal programs through September. Currently, under the legislation passed in December 2020, federal jobless aid is enhanced by $300 per week through mid-March.

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