Democrats Press Trump Administration On Forcing People Back To Work

People receiving unemployment insurance should not lose their benefits if they refuse to return to an unsafe workplace during the coronavirus pandemic, Senate Democrats said in a letter Tuesday to the Trump administration. 

Businesses are recalling workers who’ve been unemployed during the coronavirus outbreak, and the Trump administration has said people can’t keep their jobless benefits if they refuse the work, with limited exceptions. 

Twenty-two Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said in a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia that the department should give people more leeway to refuse work if they fear risking serious illness or death if they contract or spread the virus. 

“Given that returning to work during the current public health emergency presents a serious risk to the health and safety of many workers,” the letter says, “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.”

President Donald Trump wants economic activity to pick up, even though public health experts within his administration have said doing so could result in excessive sickness and death. More than 90,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, so far. 

Trump can’t force states to reopen schools and lift restrictions on commerce, but his Labor Department could be a powerful tool, making it much harder for workers to stay home.

The administration has said someone can refuse a job offer only if they’re already sick from the coronavirus, if they have to care for their children while schools are closed or if a medical professional has told them to stay home due to a compromised immune system. 

If someone is just afraid of catching the coronavirus and becoming severely ill or infecting others, that doesn’t count. And the department has even encouraged states to be proactive about yanking benefits from people who stay home.

Some workers have now returned to their jobs before their state government has managed to send them a single dollar of jobless benefits for the time they missed. Some have refused, saying they’d rather lose their income than their health. 

The policy argument hinges on the definition of “suitable work,” with the administration telling states, which administer unemployment insurance, that an offer to return to one’s job will generally count as suitable. 

That guidance ignores the federal regulation governing unemployment benefits in a disaster, which states that “a position shall not be deemed to be suitable for an individual if the circumstances present any unusual risk to the health, safety, or morals of the individual.”

Democrats cited the regulation in their letter, saying any workplace that’s not following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines is unsuitable. The Labor Department told HuffPost last week, however, that although it was aware of the regulation, its own guidance is more important.

HuffPost readers: Have you returned to work even though you don’t think it’s safe? Have you refused to do so even though you’re afraid of losing unemployment benefits? Tell us about it  ― email [email protected]. Please include your phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed.  

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