Benefits

Biden calls for unemployment benefits to employees who refuse to work because of COVID

By Jon Hyman

Jan. 25, 2021

Late last week, President Biden signaled that part of his overall plan to provide economic relief for American families and businesses amid the COVID-19 crisis is to broaden the availability of unemployment benefits to employees who quit their jobs related to Covid.

Specifically, the president is “asking the U.S. Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers who refuse unsafe working conditions can still receive unemployment insurance.”

Allowing employees who quit in the name of “safety” to receive unemployment benefits presents a potential staffing nightmare for employers, especially considering that the America Rescue Plan (Biden’s the $1.9 trillion stimulus package being debated on Capitol Hill) proposes an additional $400 per week unemployment payments through the end of September. In Ohio, for example, that payment would increase the maximum weekly unemployment benefit to $1,072 (equivalent to an hourly wage of $26.80 or an annual salary of $55,744). At those numbers, lots of employees might opt to leave their jobs and take an extended, well-compensated vacation until the pandemic ends.

Allowing employees to qualify for unemployment merely by “refusing unsafe working conditions, which would make the employees the masters of whether or not they qualify, I proposed that the DOL instead limit qualification to employees who have tangible evidence of a health or safety violation by the employer that does not allow the employee to practice social distancing, hygiene, wear protective equipment, or otherwise unreasonably exposes the employee to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.” A great starting point is the new COVID guidance President Biden has ordered OSHA to draft and emergency temporary standards Biden has ordered it to consider.

We need to make sure that we have rules that strike the proper balance between employees who have a legitimate reason not to work because of COVID-19, and employees who simply don’t want to work. Merely allowing employees to make that decision in their own exercise of discretion, and paying them a substantial benefit as a result, does not strike any balance at all.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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