Wary of the Workplace? Unemployment Aid Is on the Way

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For those who fear the workplace amid the pandemic, the unemployment office has your back. 

Employees or potential employees who were denied unemployment benefits because they refused to work out of fear of COVID-19, were laid off, or had hours reduced due to partial closures during the pandemic, will now be eligible for jobless benefits, the Department of Labor said Thursday. Previously, under the CARES Act, only employees who lost their jobs due to workplace closures were eligible for unemployment benefits.

The guidance, issued by the Department of Labor (DOL), furthers an executive order President Joe Biden revealed in January, allowing employees who refused to labor in “unsafe working conditions” during the pandemic to receive unemployment insurance. 

To qualify, individuals must "self-certify" that they are or were unemployed, unable, or unavailable to work because of identified coronavirus-related reasons.

“Until now, many workers have faced a devil’s bargain: risk coronavirus infection, or choose some level of safety and live without income support,” Suzi Levine, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, said in a press release. “Today’s guidance means more workers and families will be able to put food on their tables as our nation fights this virus, while we work to help millions of Americans return to good jobs.”

Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation who specializes in unemployment insurance, said he believes hundreds of thousands of people will benefit from this new guidance.

For those who claimed their first unemployment check on or after Dec. 27, they will only be able to collect retroactively from Dec. 6. All others will be able to collect retroactively since the inception of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program on Jan. 27, 2020. 

The measure also applies to those who worked in schools without a contract and no assurance of job security and pay.

However, the DOL warned disbursements likely won’t start until the end of March at the earliest, as states prepare their systems to issue retroactive payments to qualified workers. In the meantime, people can start preparing the necessary paperwork now to submit when the program opens to receive their benefits as soon as possible, Stettner suggested.