In March, Congress boosted unemployment insurance so that people could stay home and not catch the coronavirus currently killing a thousand Americans a day.
But now, as governors lift restrictions on commerce even amid the mounting death toll, some people are losing eligibility for the benefits ― before receiving a single dime.
Tracy McFetridge is a massage therapist in Springdale, Arkansas, who stopped working in March after Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) ordered a halt to certain business activities.
As a contract worker, McFetridge, 38, would not normally have been eligible for unemployment, but the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability (CARES) Act broadened eligibility to include independent contractors. Many states have struggled to update their systems, however, and it wasn’t until last Friday that McFetridge was finally able to file a claim.
That same day, Hutchinson announced that more businesses could reopen ― including massage therapy. And state Secretary of Commerce Michael Preston said anyone claiming unemployment who refused to return to their job could get in trouble.
“That’s a fraudulent claim for us, and we will be tracking that,” Preston said at a news conference with the governor.
The menacing tone shocked McFetridge.
“At that point, I knew they wanted people off unemployment,” she said.
So this week, she returned to the small, windowless room where she gives 60- and 90-minute massages. She still filed her unemployment claim and expects to receive benefits for the month of work she missed, but from now on she’ll be back at her job, changing her shirt between clients and wiping down equipment as much as she can.
“Going back to work and coming back in contact with everybody else’s bubble kind of makes me nervous,” she said.
The unemployment policy battle is a microcosm of the larger debate between public health experts who want people to stay home and President Donald Trump, who wants the nation’s economy to reopen.
The U.S. Labor Department has said that if someone’s employer wants them back, they can’t keep their benefits. There are a few exceptions, such as if a claimant has been diagnosed with the coronavirus or they have to watch their children because of school closures. But the department has specifically said workers can’t refuse employment just because they don’t want to contract COVID-19, the highly contagious and mysterious illness caused by the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, there may be some wiggle room on what counts as “suitable work” under the law, said Michele Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
“Workers could argue that the conditions are no longer safe and try to refuse work in the first place instead of going in,” she said.
Workers can also quit for health and safety reasons if their employer isn’t following guidelines from public health experts and in some states still receive benefits, Evermore said.
Arkansas is probably not one of the friendlier states to workers. It’s one of several asking employers to report any former employees who refuse to come back. It is also one of about 20 states that hasn’t yet managed to provide the special pandemic unemployment assistance that Congress promised to workers like McFetridge at the end of March.
Congress expanded the jobless benefits and added an unprecedented $600 per week in order to encourage people to stay home, since social distancing is essentially the only effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19, for which there is no vaccine yet and no cure. But Republicans have simply complained that the benefits will stop people from taking jobs.
“Going back to work and coming back in contact with everybody else’s bubble kind of makes me nervous.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the Senate Democrats who crafted the expanded unemployment benefits, said Republicans are undermining the foundation of the government’s response to the pandemic.
“I mean, you’ve got a million Americans infected. Deaths averaging almost 2,000 per day. It’s very important that folks stay home until it’s safe to go back to work,” Wyden told HuffPost. “I believe the law is clear that benefits should continue until the economic crisis has passed and that people should get these benefits as Congress intended.”
The extra $600 is set to expire at the end of July, but the economy is unlikely to be back on track by then, and the pandemic may still be raging. Lawmakers are now debating whether to pass another law addressing the economic fallout, and unemployment policy is already one of the biggest disagreements.
Wyden and other Democrats want the benefits phased out only if economic conditions improve; the Republicans who were vocal in opposing the extra $600 say they will insist on changes.
“You can’t pay people more than they’re making. It just hurts our small businesses,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told HuffPost this week.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), meanwhile, said, “We’re not extending it without fewer dollars.”
When Arkansas said barbers, cosmetologists, tattoo artists and massage therapists could return to work this week, the state listed some “required precautions,” including “appropriate social distancing,” even though massage typically involves physical touch.
McFetridge knows most of her regular clients have been staying home, but she has a new client this weekend and doesn’t know whether that person has been social distancing. She said she wishes Arkansas hadn’t followed the lead of states like Georgia in reopening nonessential businesses, especially since the outcome in those states could demonstrate whether reopening is safe.
“They should have played the wait-and-see game,” McFetridge said.
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