Should you get unemployment if you refuse to return to work?

When it comes to federal coronavirus relief efforts, particularly federally enhanced unemployment benefits, we continue to experience a phenomenon that was not just predictable but predicted. While the original $2 trillion dollar relief package was being debated, a number of Republican senators were excoriated for requesting an amendment that would cap unemployment benefits at a maximum equal to the worker’s most recent pay scale. This was apparently deemed “heartless” and somehow insulting to the recently unemployed.

It didn’t take long for the prediction to play out. We’ve already heard from employers in occupations ranging from landscaping to restaurants complaining that their former employees are refusing to come back to work. Why show up on the job and risk catching the virus when you can earn more money sheltering at home with everyone else, right?

Now the governments of some states have taken notice of this situation and are pondering action. This is particularly true in Iowa, where Governor Kim Reynolds (R) has drawn a firm line in the sand. Former employees who decline an offer to get their old jobs back are to be considered as having voluntarily quit, disqualifying them for unemployment insurance benefits. (Intellectualist)

As states begin to reopen their economies after weeks of stay-at-home orders, some are warning employees that they will lose unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to their jobs, according to The Hill — even if they fear contracting the coronavirus.

In Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds (R) said failing to return to work would be considered a “voluntary quit,” which would terminate an employee’s benefits.

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Reynolds said Friday. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

The governor also said employers should file a report with Iowa Workforce Development if they encounter workers who refuse to come back to their jobs.

Is there an easy, one-size-fits-all solution to this question? Probably not. During previous, more normal times, it would be simple to say that anyone who has been offered a job – particularly a job they previously accepted and were apparently at least somewhat satisfied with – who refuses it should forfeit their unemployment benefits. After all, that insurance is intended for people who are unable to find a job, not those who are “unwilling to work.”

But these aren’t normal times. In at least some cases, it might not simply be the money holding them back from returning to work. (Or at least not entirely the money.) If they have a job that places them in close quarters with coworkers or customers and they have no immunity, the fear of contracting COVID-19 is a reasonable cause for hesitating.

If Iowa, Texas and other states are going to institute rules like this (and I believe they should), employers should be able to demonstrate that they’ve taken all reasonable precautions to provide as safe of a work environment as is possible for the returning employees. I’m not talking airlocks and filtration like a Level 4 infectious disease lab. Just the basics, like a reasonable distance between works stations or plexiglass barriers where that’s not possible. Masks and other PPE, along with hand sanitizer should be available. If you can manage that much and the employees still don’t want to return, then the responsibility (and consequences) fall on their shoulders.

Of course, a lot of this could have been avoided if the Democrats had listened to reason when approving the federally enhanced employment benefits in the first place. Most people are now eligible for $1,000 per week, much of that untaxed. That works out to the equivalent of $25 per hour, a full ten dollars per hour above the minimum wage in the most generous of states and cities. That makes it a lot easier to decide that it’s “too risky” to go back to work if your job is going to immediately deliver a major pay cut to you. And Congress should have recognized that reality before voting on the relief package.