The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of Americans unemployed; with the assistance of expanded unemployment benefits, many are receiving more in jobless benefits than they earned before being jobless.
As states have started to open up, however, some people may find themselves getting called back to work but are reluctant to go. And there are plenty of justifiable reasons for that, including fear of contracting the coronavirus and concerns about childcare issues if schools, daycare centers, and summer camps are still closed.
If you're one of the workers asked to come back but you don't want to for what you consider to be valid reasons, it's important to know there's a good chance you could lose your unemployment benefits if you refuse.
When a refusal to go back to work could cost you your benefits
Unemployment rules vary by state, but many localities relaxed their rules as businesses shut their doors due to COVID-19. Beneficial rule changes included waiving requirements that you be actively looking for work to get benefits and eliminating a "waiting week" that left workers without income for the first week after a job loss. The federal government also authorized unemployment benefits for many workers who would not normally receive them, including some gig workers and independent contractors.
Despite these rule changes, there are some basic rules that are still in effect, including the fact that you can't get benefits if you voluntarily choose to remain unemployed when suitable replacement work is available. Because of that rule, if your employer offers you your job back, you typically can't refuse it and keep getting paid.
In fact, if your employer does ask you to come back to work and you decline, most states require the company to report this fact to the Department of Labor so your checks can be stopped. And while many places have created a carve-out for those who are subject to quarantine orders issued by a doctor or by the government, simply fearing that you could catch COVID-19 isn't considered a justification for declining to take your job back.
To be clear, many states are making clear that your company is required to provide safe working conditions. If they refuse, the job may not be considered suitable. However, you'd need to document those unsafe conditions carefully and be prepared for the fact your benefits could be stopped until you appeal and demonstrate there are problems. And if the conditions of your job have materially changed -- for example, because your employer is offering far less pay -- this may also be a justification for turning down a request to return to work.
But unless you're under mandatory quarantine, your job has changed, or your employer isn't complying with safety rules, you are supposed to go back to work when asked, and your employer is supposed to make sure your benefits stop if you don't.
What should you do instead of refusing to return to work?
Losing your unemployment benefits could have catastrophic financial consequences, so you'll have some tough choices to make if you find yourself asked back to work when you can't or don't want to go.
One of the best options is to see if you can qualify for expanded paid sick leave made available by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Under the law, workers who have been employed for at least 30 days can qualify to get up to 10 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds of their normal rate of pay if they have lost child care due to COVID-19 and have to care for their kids.
However, not all employers offer this leave (some small employers are exempt), and this option won't be available if you're simply frightened of returning to work. If you can't qualify for paid leave, talk with your employer about your options. Your boss may be able to work something out with you, like working from home or agreeing to come back at a specific date or under certain conditions.
The key is to be proactive in working with your company because simply refusing to return to work is almost assuredly going to lead to your unemployment benefits coming to an end.