Labor Department expands jobless aid for those forced to choose 'your money or your health'

Alexis Keenan
·Reporter
·4 min read

Workers whose states denied them unemployment aid during the COVID-19 pandemic may be able to retroactively access benefits back to Feb. 2, 2020, according to a new Labor Department rule issued Thursday.

The Department of Labor (DOL) broadened access to the federal pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) established under the CARES Act, and comes in response to a Jan. 22 executive order seeking clarification on who qualifies for it.

The DOL rule expands eligibility to certain workers who refused to show up based on unsafe conditions, education workers who lost work due to volatile work schedules, and employees whose hours were reduced or who were permanently laid off. The department also clarified that primary caretakers for children whose schools have closed have a valid, pandemic-related reason for not working.

“Today’s guidance from DOL is a huge relief and welcomed news to all those who were essentially forced by their state to choose ‘your money or your health’ when they were called back to work,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow with The Century Foundation, a progressive, independent think tank, wrote in an email to Yahoo Finance.

For workers who are primary caregivers to children, the DOL is requiring that states allow the circumstances where a child is not permitted to attend in-person school as a qualifying, pandemic-related reason (under PUA) to certify that an applicant is unable to work. Alexa Tapia, a coordinator for National Employment Law Project, told Yahoo Finance on Friday that this provision could particularly aid female workers.

Glen Newswanger and Dwight Newswanger prepare beef orders at Newswanger Meats in Shiloh, Ohio, U.S., May 13, 2020 as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues. Picture taken May 13, 2020.  REUTERS/Dane Rhys
Glen Newswanger and Dwight Newswanger prepare beef orders at Newswanger Meats in Shiloh, Ohio, U.S., May 13, 2020 as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues. Picture taken May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Dane Rhys

“We've seen throughout this crisis that, for one, women have borne the brunt of it. They've taken on the caregiving, they've consistently shown the biggest proportion of job losses, with Black and Latina women having the highest losses in the December jobs filings,” Tapia said. “This empowers workers to not be fearful of leaving their employment and pursuing unemployment."

For workers who refused to show up to a job based on unsafe conditions, the DOL said that an employer’s failed safety precautions — such as those related to wearing facial masks, physical distancing measures, and personal protective equipment (PPE) consistent with public health guidelines — can also justify refusing work. Roughly 40,000 Americans have been turned down for unemployment because of refusal to work over unsafe conditions, according to Andrew Stettner of the Century Foundation.

“The job refusal piece is so important because we've seen a lot of the workers on the frontlines...being forced to work in unsafe working conditions,” Tapia said, citing Kansas meatpacking employees who were exposed to COVID-19 and told to report to work. Still, Tapia cautioned that employers retain the right to contest and defend an employee's claim of an unsafe environment.

Another group of workers now eligible for federal benefits are full-time and part-time employees who were denied state unemployment benefits because their employers declined to participate in work sharing, an elective unemployment program.

Yet another previously ineligible group that can now apply for assistance includes school and school services workers, such as bus drivers and school cafeteria workers, who were denied benefits over the summer, or told that they would need to repay benefits if their work resumed in the fall. With many schools experiencing volatile schedules, the DOL said, workers whose hours have been decreased can apply.

Newly eligible workers based on Thursday’s guidance must file for the federal benefit through their state unemployment division. However, they must be careful to specify their claim is under the PUA program, rather than their state's program. The maximum number of weeks of eligibility will also be based on the state maximum where the applicant applies, according to Tapia.

Prior guidance opened the federal unemployment benefit to those who did not qualify for regular unemployment compensation and were unable to continue working as a result of COVID-19, such as self-employed workers, independent contractors, and gig workers.

Asked about the estimated number of Americans expected to become eligible for federal unemployment insurance, based on its updated guidance, Michael Trupo, deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Labor's office of public affairs told Yahoo Finance, "While we don’t know the exact number of people who will become eligible under this change, we do know that it will be significant. And significant in two dimensions: First, that many people will benefit, and second, that it will have great impact on their health safety and their economic security."

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance and former litigation attorney.

Follow Alexis Keenan on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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