As States Rush to Reopen, 224 Groups Urge USDOL to Clarify Misleading Guidance on Workers’ Right to Unemployment When Refusing to Return to Dangerous Workplaces

Following is a statement from Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project:

“Late yesterday, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and 223 organizations issued a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) calling on the agency to clarify its guidance on the federal laws that protect workers from losing their unemployment insurance (UI) or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits when they are called back to jobs that are unsafe due to COVID-19. The groups are urging DOL to aggressively enforce these workers’ right to refuse to return to workplaces that are hazardous to their health and well-being.

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“As states begin to authorize businesses to reopen, and as some businesses take it upon themselves to reopen, governors have been threatening workers who refuse to return to work that they will lose their unemployment insurance. Indeed, just this week, DOL issued misleading guidance calling on employers to report to state UI agencies any workers who refuse to return to work. Yet, at no time since this pandemic hit has DOL issued guidance reinforcing the fact that under federal law, workers only have to return to jobs where the ‘prevailing conditions of work’—including health and safety conditions—are the same as before layoff; and that under Disaster Unemployment Assistance regulations applicable to the PUA program, workers have the right to refuse work that would ‘present an unusual risk to the health [and] safety’ of the worker.

“NELP urges all levels of government to protect the health and safety and economic stability of underpaid and unemployed workers amidst the current COVID-19 crisis and through the ensuing recovery, with efforts toward realizing long-term structural change. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are suffering disproportionate rates of layoffs, exposure to the virus, infection, and death related to COVID-19, as compared to white people, due to long-term structural racism, disinvestment, and unjust policy choices in health, labor, and the economy. Unless policymakers and government agencies use their power to issue strong guidance and enforce workers’ right to refuse to return to unsafe working conditions, individuals, families, communities, and most of all, women of color, will continue to suffer.

“We urge the DOL to move swiftly and assertively and make sure that workers, employers, and state UI agencies all know that no workers should return to jobs that will put their health and well-being at risk for fear of losing unemployment insurance.”

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