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Can I refuse unsafe work because of COVID-19 and collect unemployment?

An executive order signed by President Biden could allow some workers to receive benefits if they turn down work that might expose them to COVID-19.

Can I refuse unsafe work because of COVID-19 and collect unemployment?
[Photo: Gregory Pappas/Unsplash]
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President Joe Biden doesn’t want Americans to choose between paychecks and COVID-19 safety. An executive order he signed last month could allow some workers to still receive unemployment benefits if they choose not to work a job that may expose them to COVID-19. Here’s what to know:

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Cool, so I can refuse unsafe work and collect unemployment now?

Not necessarily. The order requests that the U.S. Department of Labor “consider clarifying” the matter. That’s code for saying, “Hey, Department of Labor, please issue some federal guidelines that all 50 states can follow. Thanks.”

What will the guidance say?

Likely that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse work that jeopardizes their health. Specifically, this will entail work involving close proximity to others, such as restaurant, factory, public transport, or other roles, and it will likely say work can be turned down for two reasons: (1) poor COVID-19 safety protocols, or (2) high risk due to the worker’s age or underlying health condition(s). But we won’t know the details until the guidance is published.

When will that be?

In the next few weeks.

What if I want to refuse unsafe work right now?

Check your state’s guidelines. As is often the case in the glorious U.S. of A., every state is handling it differently. Some states are currently allowing older or high-risk populations to opt out of work and still receive benefits. Some states are not. In normal, nonpandemic times, workers are typically not allowed to collect unemployment if they turn down “suitable” work.

Anything I can do to get started today?

Yes. Now is a great time to gather documentation on your job position (job title, job description, pay stubs) and, if relevant, underlying health conditions. Stay safe.