In his first days in office, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a flurry of executive orders. Notably, President Biden instructed the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to issue new instructions to state unemployment agencies that will allow individuals to claim unemployment benefits even if they quit their jobs because they felt unsafe working during the pandemic. According to the White House fact sheet, the executive order states:
Guarantee that No American Has to Choose Between Paying Their Bills and Keeping Themselves and Their Families Safe from COVID-19. In 2019, 43% of American households reported having at least one member with pre-existing conditions, many of whom may have a heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID. President Biden believes that workers should have the right to safe work environments and that no one should have to choose between their livelihoods and their own or their families’ health. As one of many measures to help keep workers and their families’ safe throughout the pandemic, the President is asking the Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance.
Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, persons who qualify for unemployment benefits are again receiving additional funds in excess of state unemployment amounts. If individuals qualify for $1 in state unemployment, they are also eligible to receive an additional $300 per week. The additional funds will be available until the end of March 2021. However, President Biden will likely seek to extend the termination date from March until at least September 2021 as part of his anticipated stimulus bill.
The executive order does not specify the criteria to determine who will be eligible for additional unemployment benefits. To date, the DOL has not issued new guidance. Key points for the DOL to define and clarify will include what constitutes a valid fear of contracting COVID-19 at work and are there any qualifiers for the employee, such as an underlying condition. In short, will fear alone be enough to qualify for unemployment benefits?
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.