Some employers are reopening and calling furloughed workers back to the job. That’s good news, right?
But what if you make more money now from unemployment benefits and the $600-a-week supplemental payment in federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation?
You want to be very careful about turning down an offer from your employer to return to work, officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and worker advocates say.
Many workers tell us this is an emerging issue. Their employers may be restarting operations now that the government is lifting coronavirus restrictions on businesses. Other companies also have received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans that require them to have workers on the payroll.
Here’s what you need to know:
Do I have to accept my employer’s offer to return to work?
Generally speaking, if you turn down an employer’s call to return to work, then you have quit. If you quit that job, then you are ineligible for unemployment compensation. That’s the law.
“Any time you decide to turn down an offer to come back to work, you’re taking some risk that the system may say you did not have good grounds to do that,” said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director and managing attorney for the Community Legal Services employment unit.
How will the government know I turned down a job offer?
When you file bi-weekly unemployment claims, the government asks you to verify that you have not received a job offer.
The Unemployment Compensation office also routinely reaches out to employers to verify the status of workers who are receiving benefits. Let’s assume your employer will report that you turned down a job offer. If your employer says you quit, but you indicated to the state you had no job offers, that will trigger an investigation into your claim.
There’s another way the state verifies a worker’s employment status: After two quarters, the state’s computers compare employer wage records to unemployment claims. If there’s a mismatch, an state employee conducts an investigation and recovers any overpayments to employees, said Susan Dickinson, the director of the Pennsylvania office of unemployment compensation benefits policy.
So what if I get caught?
Nothing good will happen.
You will lose your unemployment benefits. The state will try to recover any illegitimate payments you received. And, of course, you will be out of work, just when the economy is in a recession.
Worst case, you also might be prosecuted for fraud.
But what if I have a legitimate reason not to return to work?
The Unemployment Compensation office reviews each case individually to determine whether there’s a permissible reason why an employee can’t go back to work. “Each case is different, and each case needs to be reviewed,” Jerry Oleksiak, the Pennsylvania secretary of labor and industry, told reporters this week.
Be prepared to document your case. This is an area of frequent dispute, and keeps lots of employment lawyers busy.
I’m worried about my health if I return to work.
If you can document a legitimate health concern, or concern about the health of someone in your household, you might be on solid ground.
“If part of the reason why they’re not going back is because they have a compromised immune system or someone in their house has a compromised immune system, we would look at that as more of a relevant reason other than you’re just making more money on unemployment or some other reason,” said Dickinson, the director of unemployment compensation benefits policy.
I need to take mass transit to get to work. What if I don’t want to get on a bus?
That’s a reasonable fear, but it will probably not qualify as a legitimate reason to turn down an offer to return to work.
“Most people who need to take public transportation to work are not going to be excused just for that reason,” Dietrich said.
My work environment is unsafe for COVID-19. I’m not going back.
You might have an argument for turning down a job if your employer doesn’t provide necessary protective equipment or impose social distancing rules in the workplace. But you need to first try to work it out with your employer. Your arguments also need to be reasonable.
Dietrich said a good place to start is whether the employer has complied with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guidelines for preparing workplaces for COVID-19.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday added uncertainty into the equation when he said Pennsylvania cannot widely enforce workplace protections. He suggested that employees refuse to go to work if they don’t feel safe.
What if I need child care, but I can’t find a caregiver?
The difficulty of finding child care alone is not a “good cause” for quitting, unless you can demonstrate you’ve tried every means available to get care for your child.
“Did they exhaust all options?” said Dickinson of the Unemployment Compensation office. “That’s a phrase that we use often — did they exhaust all options in trying to resolve this issue?”
As with other situations, a combination of factors may also come into play — if you are unable to obtain child care and are immunodeficient, you might have a stronger argument than if you are unable to obtain child care, but you are young and fit.
“It’s always going to be a case-by-case situation,” Dietrich said. “It’s a sliding scale on which you can never quite be sure what end of this slide you’re going to be on and whether you’re in danger of being cut off from benefits or not.”
Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employers with fewer than 500 employees must provide up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave -- at two-thirds regular pay rate -- to employees who need to care for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed or unavailable because of the pandemic. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for exemption if the paid leave requirements would jeopardize the business’s economic viability.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.