Democratic Coronavirus Bill Links Unemployment Benefits To Workplace Safety

Under the Senate proposal, workers would remain eligible for unemployment even if they refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

In addition to preserving a $600 increase in weekly unemployment benefits, some Senate Democrats want to update eligibility standards so that people don’t get cut off for refusing to work in unsafe conditions.

Each state has its own definition of “suitable work,” and workers lose eligibility for benefits if they turn down a job offer that meets the definition.

Legislation introduced Tuesday by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would give state workforce agencies $10 billion to promote workplace safety if they update their laws to say that work isn’t suitable if the conditions aren’t up to federal standards for reducing exposure to the coronavirus.

Several workers have told HuffPost they’ve been cut off from unemployment for refusing work, even though they have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, that put them at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. Wyden’s bill says a job’s not suitable if it presents any unusual risk to the individual.

“This once-in-a-century economic crisis has exposed the shortcomings of our safety net, and Congress must address them,” Wyden said in a statement.

Wyden’s proposal comes as an extra $600 per week that Congress authorized in March is set to expire, resulting in a precipitous income drop for more than 25 million Americans receiving unemployment insurance. Economists have credited the benefits with propping up the economy, while Republicans have complained that the benefits discourage people from taking jobs.

Unemployment claims surged this year as state and local governments ordered businesses closed to slow the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 140,000 Americans. State workforce agencies have struggled to process claims quickly, and even people without eligibility issues have said it’s taken months to start receiving benefits.

Wyden said he’s hoping to fold his proposal into the next major coronavirus legislation Congress passes, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said should happen in the next few weeks. Other priorities for the legislation include extra money for schools. Republicans also want to block coronavirus-related lawsuits.

“Unemployment insurance was created in the 1930s, and the program is in urgent need of reform to address both short- and long-term issues,” Wyden said. “State unemployment insurance systems in particular were not equipped to deal with the challenges workers face in a modern economy, or ensure worker safety in the midst of a pandemic.”

Wyden’s co-sponsors are Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

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