Employment lawyer answers questions about returning to work as the economy reopens

Updated: Apr. 22, 2020 at 5:49 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Within the last month, Tennessee has seen more than 300,000 new unemployment claims throughout the state, and with businesses reopening soon, some might not feel comfortable jumping back into the workforce because of a health risk.

Many have wondered if people who refuse to go back to work can still collect unemployment?

Employment Lawyer Alan Crone says there's no black and white answer.

"It depends," he said. "And it's really going to depend on that person's specific situation."

According to the Department of Labor's website, "Voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about COVID-19 does not make you eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance."

"If you've got a particular situation where an employer is putting you in peril then I think that's a different situation," Crone said.

An example of an exception is if an employee has complications from the virus and cannot return to work and the employer cannot make accommodations, or if an employee is caring for a close family member with the virus and cannot return to work.

Employees can apply for partial benefits if they are asked to return to work and their hours are substantially reduced resulting in less money.

Crone says if an employee has concerns about an employer violating CDC or OSHA guidelines, they should be report it immediately.

"There's going to be testing requirements, PPE requirements, social distancing requirements and if a company is not following that then there may be some relief available," Crone said.

Each state sets individual guidelines for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.

In Arkansas, a spokesperson for the Division of Workforce Services said, "Once the executive order has expired UI claimants will be required to look for work to be eligible. In Arkansas, claimants cannot refuse to work for their current employer and be eligible to collect UI benefits unless they are unable to work because they are under quarantine for possible COVID-19 or caring for someone that has COVID-19. UI eligibility for claimants refusing to report to work due to unsafe working conditions, including possible COVID-19 at the workplace, is determined on a case-by-case basis."

A spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security said, “People cannot get unemployment if they refuse suitable work. The suitable is key and sometimes needs adjudication.”

During a press conference Wednesday, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Commissioner Jeff McCord said Tennesseans can still collect unemployment if they are afraid to return to work, however it’s something the Department is navigating during this transition and will know more in the future.

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