In May, JoAnn Arceneaux refused to go back to her job with an airline subcontractor at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia.
Arceneaux, 49, has Type 2 diabetes, putting her at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. So she told her bosses she was not coming back, got fired and lost her unemployment benefits.
Since then, Georgia’s cases have spiked, and the Transportation Security Administration has tallied 40 infections among its employees at Hartsfield-Jackson.
The Georgia model, which several other states followed with President Donald Trump’s encouragement, has proven a failure. Coronavirus is surging in Georgia and many other states, and the Trump administration’s push to yank unemployment benefits from workers likely contributed to the spread.
Arceneaux feels she made a smart decision not to work, even though she now has no income and has survived thanks to support from her son and fiance.
“I’m just appalled about how they’re more concerned about stopping these unemployment benefits than the overall health of employees,” Arceneaux said. “They shouldn’t be forcing you to go to work.”
Congress expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance in March to cover people who wouldn’t normally receive benefits, including workers who quit their jobs “as a direct result of COVID-19.”
Such workers are supposed to be able to get federally funded benefits if they have an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk of severe illness. But Senate Republicans loudly complained that Congress had given so much money to layoff victims that they wouldn’t return to work, and the Trump administration essentially told state workforce agencies not to implement that part of the law. As a result, more people had to decide whether they would go back to work in pandemic conditions or go broke.
Paying people to stay home, after all, might have been good for public health, but it was contrary to the president’s goal of revving up the economy as quickly as possible.
When workers refuse a job offer, their state workforce agency typically finds out quickly, either from the workers, who are required to update the state on their circumstances each week, or from the former employer, who has a tax incentive to contest claims.
Arceneaux’s benefits stopped soon after she quit. She said someone at the Georgia Department of Labor told her there would be an investigation into her claim. But six weeks later, she still hasn’t received an update.
“I’m not able to speak to anybody,” she told HuffPost last week. “I keep calling and leaving messages.”
After HuffPost reached out to the department, Arceneaux said someone called her to say the department would make a decision on her case later this month. The department declined to comment.
Here’s what went wrong: The workforce agency is fussing over whether Arceneaux is eligible for regular state-funded unemployment insurance, which is typically denied to workers who quit or refuse jobs without “good cause” as a matter of state law. Because she has Type 2 diabetes, Arceneaux should be eligible for the new federal benefits formally known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
The federal assistance works the same way as state benefits and is administered in essentially the same manner by state workforce agencies but is only available to people who have been deemed ineligible for state benefits.
Unemployed workers with legitimate health problems are likely getting caught in the same bureaucratic purgatory all over the country, but the data are sketchy. Of the 30 million unemployment claims state agencies have processed, roughly 75% have actually been paid, according to The Century Foundation’s Andrew Stettner, who compared claims numbers to Treasury Department information about how much money the government has actually spent on benefits. The remaining 25% of claims are likely either pending or were denied.
The U.S. Labor Department told states in a formal guidance in May to crack down on this exact category of unemployment claimant: job refusers. The guidance told states “to request employers to provide information when workers refuse to return to their jobs for reasons that do not support their continued eligibility for benefits.”
The document said nothing about ensuring payments to workers who are ineligible for regular state benefits but who remain eligible for the more permissive federal alternative, which was patterned after the disaster aid the federal government often provides after hurricanes. If a person quits her job for health reasons, she is supposed to self-certify that a doctor advised her not to work, and she is supposed to get paid.
Democrats said in a May letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia that the department should tell states to “proactively” help people with health conditions make the switch from state to federal benefits.
“Given that returning to work during the current public health emergency presents a serious risk to the health and safety of many workers, it is crucial that the department make clear that individuals cannot be forced to choose between keeping their income and putting their lives in danger,” the senators wrote.
Scalia never responded.
A Labor Department spokesperson said in a statement that employees who turn down an offer of suitable work without good cause “raise an issue” that has to be adjudicated by the state.
“There is no automatic switch to [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] if an individual is no longer eligible for regular UI benefits,” the spokesperson said, adding that anyone who meets the criteria should apply for the federal benefits. “States are responsible to inform ineligible UI recipients of the PUA program, but they are not responsible to determine eligibility for PUA until an individual applies.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the senator will soon introduce legislation that would make it more explicit that people with health conditions should be covered by the federal program. Lawmakers have been more focused on the looming expiration of an extra $600 in federally funded payments to people receiving jobless aid, but Wyden’s proposal would wind up in a broader coronavirus package that Congress will debate in the coming weeks.
“I don't feel I had a choice.”
Becky Groose of Kalispell, Montana, started receiving unemployment benefits in March after getting furloughed from her job as the director of an after-school program. The city asked her to come back to her summer job as director of a camp for young children in June. It’s a job that she had very much enjoyed for the last two years, but she said no.
Groose has immune system disorders ― exactly the kind of underlying condition that would put her at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Groose said she felt her employer had done everything possible to minimize her potential exposure to the virus, but that it still wasn’t worth the risk. “I said, ‘Unless you put me in a little plexiglass box, I don’t know how you can keep me safe,’” she said.
Her health care provider agreed. “At this point, I feel strongly that it would NOT be in her best interests to work at the summer camp this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” her doctor wrote in a June 10 letter. She added: “The concern would be for her increased exposure with an already increased risk for poor outcome due to age and multiple medical concerns.”
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry didn’t seem to care. Though the U.S. Labor Department said states are “responsible to inform” ineligible unemployment insurance recipients about the federal benefits, the Montana labor department’s website simply says workers “must return to work when asked to do so by the employer.”
On the ledger where Groose can track the status of her claim, it says “job refusal” for each week since June 13. She’s getting by thanks in part to temporary forbearance from her mortgage lender.
Groose’s situation is a small preview of the dilemma facing millions of educators who may be at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 but are being called back to work next month. She loves her job, the kids, the parents. She doesn’t want to stop working. But she is now looking for a job that gives her more distance from other people.
“I don’t feel I had a choice,” Groose said.
HuffPost readers: Were you in a similar position? Did you get sick after returning to work? Tell us about it: Email email@example.com and please include your phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed.