By Joshua C. Black, Esq.
A recent executive order issued by President Biden is designed to clear up confusion associated with who can – and who cannot – qualify for unemployment benefits in relation to COVID-19 and safe workplaces. After a very challenging 2020, many companies are trying to get back to business, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, employees are facing a pretty hefty dilemma: return to jobs that may put them at high risk of contracting the virus, or refuse to return to work and jeopardize qualifying for unemployment benefits.
Under Biden’s order, workers refusing to work in an unsafe environment may qualify for unemployment aid depending on the circumstances. The President requested the Department of Labor clarify federal rules pertaining to this situation so workers who refuse to work in unsafe places could still be granted unemployment benefits.
The order is also seeking federal guidance to establish clear nationwide guidelines for worker safety during the pandemic. Currently, there are no federal standards regarding COVID-safe workplaces, although state laws may allow employees to refuse to work if conditions are hazardous. The rules vary state-by-state.
Biden’s orders are most beneficial to employees in some of the higher-risk categories - workers 65 and older, or those with pre-existing health conditions. Additionally, new federal mandates are likely to put added pressure on companies to assure workplaces are as safe as possible during this unprecedented time in the nation’s history.
Unfortunately, even with the new executive orders in place, employees who refuse to return to work, or turn down reasonable positions, are heading for an uphill battle when it comes to being approved for unemployment benefits.
Workers who quit their jobs for safety reasons typically face a higher burden of proof about what constitutes an “unsafe workplace.” Not only do employees have to show there was significant health risk in the workplace, they also have to prove they sought resolution by bringing concerns to the employer’s attention. Plus, in order to qualify for unemployment support, employees may have to establish their employer acted against recommended health and safety guidance from organizations like the CDC or local/state regulators.
It’s also important to note, under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, workers have the right to quit for good cause if their employer doesn’t follow safety guidelines in the workplace. These rules predate the pandemic, but again the burden of proof is on the employee. Keeping diligent records on perceived safety infractions and documenting communication with the employer is key.
If you have questions about qualifying for unemployment benefits, or would like to speak with an Arizona employment attorney regarding your potential eligibility, reach out to the Law Office of Joshua Black, PLC, at (623) 738-2225.