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US Department of Labor guidance to state UI programs expands eligibility for workers who declined work due to pandemic safety concerns

WASHINGTON – For many of America’s workers, choosing between unsafe employment and refusing work to avoid the risk of coronavirus infection has serious consequences. Too often, those who do not return to work or accept a job offer over concerns about workplace exposure lose their state unemployment benefits.

In response to a directive from President Biden, the U.S. Department of Labor is issuing guidance to state unemployment insurance agencies that expands the number of instances in which workers may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

“Our nation cannot afford to continue compounding the already-devastating effects of the ongoing pandemic-related economic crisis by leaving workers destitute and living in fear for their health and their lives,” said Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Labor Patricia Smith. “Today’s guidance opens the door to relief for workers who have faced difficult, if not impossible, choices between accepting employment in an unsafe workplace to receive a steady source of income, and protecting their health and that of their loved ones.”

The new guidance expands eligibility to three categories of workers:

Workers receiving unemployment benefits who had their continued regular unemployment benefits’ claims denied after they refused to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite not in compliance with coronavirus health and safety standards.
Workers laid off, or who have had their work hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic.
School employees working without a contract or reasonable assurance of continued employment who face reduced paychecks and no assurance of continued pay when schools are closed due to coronavirus.

“Until now, many workers have faced a devil’s bargain: risk coronavirus infection, or choose some level of safety and live without income support,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Suzi Levine. “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.”

The new coronavirus-related reasons are retroactive – they apply as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program. However, individuals filing their first initial PUA claim after Dec. 27, 2020, are limited to weeks of unemployment beginning on or after Dec. 6, 2020. Individuals must self-certify that they are unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of identified coronavirus-related reasons during the applicable time period.

Implementing the expansion of benefits and applying them retroactively will take substantial work and time for state workforce agencies. The department anticipates that the earliest this expanded eligibility will be available is the end of March. Those who are eligible, however, should be able to receive the benefits paid retroactive to their date of eligibility.

In support of the new guidance, the department will provide state systems with funds needed to make necessary changes and time to update their systems to enable retroactive payment of PUA to eligible claimants. PUA is 100 percent federally funded, and administered by state agencies on behalf of the department’s Employment and Training Administration.

The Unemployment Insurance Program is a federal/state partnership, with states responsible for accepting, processing and paying claims. States now have sufficient federal guidance to pay PUA claims related to unsafe working conditions. Direct all eligibility questions to state employment agencies.

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