Some States Let Vulnerable Workers Turn Down Jobs

By: - May 6, 2020 12:00 am

A man walks by a closed store in Chicago last week. As businesses begin to reopen, states face pressure to clarify whether people can stay on unemployment if they’re afraid of catching the coronavirus at work. Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

DENVER — As governors start to allow businesses to reopen, they’re under pressure to clarify whether people can refuse a job offer and stay on unemployment if they’re afraid of catching the coronavirus at work.

States generally cut residents from their unemployment insurance rolls if they turn down a job offer that matches their skill set and work history. But the coronavirus pandemic has raised new questions about whether it’s safe for people — particularly older, sicker people — to return to work, and what employers must do to keep workers safe.

“We’re kind of in uncharted territory here,” said Rachael Kohl, director of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. She noted that there’s not yet any case law on unemployment benefits and COVID-19. 

As confusion swirls, worker advocates are urging state officials to spell out policies and legal aid groups are gearing up to defend workers in court. 

Some state labor departments, such as Missouri’s and Iowa’s, have announced that workers will lose unemployment benefits if they refuse a job, except in certain circumstances set by Congress in March when it approved emergency unemployment aid. Under that law, people can refuse to return to work if they are ill with the coronavirus, caring for a family member ill with the virus or unable to find child care because of the virus.

Many state labor departments also are telling employers that they must report workers who turn down job offers.

Fear of getting sick isn’t a sufficient reason for someone to refuse to work, the U.S. Department of Labor has said and states such as Georgia have reiterated.

But some lawmakers argue that at this stage of the pandemic, the danger of infection remains so high that fear of getting sick should be a valid reason for anyone to stay on unemployment. No governor has gone that far, though some are allowing people to stay on unemployment if they have a health condition that makes them vulnerable to a serious infection and have been offered an unsafe job.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, told state regulators in April to make sure that people over age 65, people who have certain chronic diseases and other vulnerable people won’t be forced off unemployment if they turn down a job that’s likely to put their health at risk.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment last week issued emergency rules for determining whether a person refused a suitable offer of work or quit because of hazardous conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. Regulators must consider the person’s vulnerability to the coronavirus, their health and safety risk in returning to work or remaining on the job, and the normal level of risk in the industry before the pandemic.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment did not respond to requests for comment.

Story continues after map.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.