President Donald Trump’s labor secretary didn’t like it this week when Democrats accused him of forcing workers off unemployment insurance even if their jobs presented a risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.
“Just to be clear, we have never suggested that workers should sacrifice health for returning to work,” said Eugene Scalia, leader of the U.S. Department of Labor, at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. “We oppose them being put to that choice as well.”
But the Trump administration, in coordination with state workforce agencies, has been forcing workers to make that choice for weeks. The president has called for workers to be “warriors” for the economy, and the Labor Department is prodding them into battle as the virus continues to spread.
Congress created new rules allowing people to continue receiving unemployment benefits and not go back to work if they’re at risk of severe illness from the coronavirus due to a preexisting condition. Longstanding federal regulations for disaster benefits say people can decline a job if it poses a risk to their health or safety.
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), repeatedly asked Scalia if his department would clarify under what circumstances states should allow workers to continue receiving unemployment benefits instead of returning to work.
“I believe that most employers want to do the right thing and keep their workers safe, but they can’t do it if they don’t get clear guidance on what makes a safe workplace in the COVID era,” Wyden said. “The Department of Labor has failed completely on this issue.”
Scalia said over and over that the department wants safe workplaces, but that these matters are really up to states. “If we hear from states that that’s an area where they need further guidance, we’ll certainly have those discussions with them,” he said.
In fact, the administration has encouraged states to take a hard line, urging them to yank benefits from people who refuse to go back to their jobs.
Utah, for instance, has warned unemployed workers who refuse job offers that they “may be required to pay back benefits received and face possible prosecution for fraud.” The state’s Department of Workforce Services has provided scant information about exceptions to this rule.
Kristina Kozak of Salt Lake City got called back to her job at a sporting goods store last month following an April furlough. The 46-year-old wasn’t sure that her workplace would be safe, and she didn’t want to take a risk given her health issues. She sent the state a doctor’s note confirming that she has asthma, upper respiratory issues and a compromised immune system. Last week, the workforce agency terminated her benefits anyway.
“It’s frustrating, it’s bewildering, it’s sad,” Kozak said, adding that she and her husband are struggling to make the rent. “I feel I have nowhere to turn. I can’t get a hold of anybody. I can’t get answers. I feel like I jumped in a giant pool and I’m just treading water to try and figure something out.”
(Utah is one of two states to “pause” its reopening this week amid a rise in coronavirus infections.)
Kozak is clearly eligible to remain on unemployment under the criteria laid out in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability (CARES) Act. The Labor Department’s guidance to states specifically says that someone is eligible if they have been advised by a medical professional to self-quarantine because of an underlying condition.
But there’s a catch ― the special criteria only apply to the “pandemic unemployment assistance” benefits specifically created for people who don’t qualify for regular state-funded benefits. Utah invited Kozak to file an appeal over getting regular benefits instead of rolling her onto the pandemic benefits. Scalia has ignored Democratic demands to make sure that people with health conditions can switch to the pandemic benefits when they’re disqualified from regular benefits.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are older or who have compromised immune systems are at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans so far.
The Labor Department has said that if people think their workplace is unsafe, they should call the department’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which has issued coronavirus guidelines that encourage employers to allow telecommuting, to make sure people are washing their hands and to keep employees and customers from getting too close to each other, among other things.
Scalia testified this week that OSHA has received “several thousand” workplace safety complaints related to the coronavirus but has issued only one citation. “We have a number of cases that we are investigating and if we find violations, we will certainly not hesitate to bring a case,” Scalia said.
“One citation out of 5,000 is unbelievable,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).
Democrats and their presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden, have said that OSHA should issue an “emergency temporary standard” imposing mandatory safety rules. Biden also said this week that the federal government should provide free coronavirus testing for everyone called back to their jobs.
“I fear every day that I’m going to get the phone call that I have been exposed.”
Available data suggest that a lot of people who received unemployment benefits amid the pandemic have returned to work. In California, for instance, more people are receiving only partial benefits or having their claims denied due to higher earnings, per an analysis of unemployment data by the California Policy Lab. Nationally, nearly 8 million workers who’d been counted as “unemployed” in April wound up employed in May ― the largest-ever monthly flow of workers between the two categories, according to the American Enterprise Institute.
Besides health fears, another reason that some people may refuse to go back to work is if their job is now offering much lower pay, which may be the case at businesses whose customers are holding back to limit their own risk of coronavirus exposure. Drastically lower pay usually means the job offer doesn’t meet the legal definition of “suitable work” that someone on unemployment can’t refuse and continue to get benefits.
“If they want to pull you back and pay you half of your previous wage, that’s usually not suitable,” said Michele Evermore, an unemployment policy expert with the National Employment Law Project.
Not everybody who went back to work is happy about it, regardless of the money. Tracy McFetridge of Springdale, Arkansas, returned to her job as a massage therapist last month after the state government put unemployment benefit recipients on notice that refusing work could be benefits fraud.
The counties where McFetridge lives and works have recently reported the most new coronavirus cases in Arkansas, which is itself on the list of states seeing a surge of infections. McFetridge, 38, said that she gives 60- and 90-minute massages in a small room with poor ventilation and that it’s impossible for clients to wear a mask while they’re lying face down.
But Arkansas included massage therapists on its list of approved businesses for the first phase of reopening last month, and McFetridge said she’s had a lot of new clients.
“One this week telling me how often she is at the gym and 15 minutes later telling me how shocked she is that not hardly anybody is wearing a mask at the gym,” McFetridge said in an email. “I fear every day that I’m going to get the phone call that I have been exposed.”