WASHINGTON – The Biden administration expanded unemployment insurance eligibility on Thursday to include workers who declined job offers in unsafe workplaces, fulfilling a promise to reduce pressure on people who say they were forced to choose between maintaining health or receive a salary.
The Department of Labor made the change on Thursday in response to a January executive order from President Joe Biden that increased the eligibility of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to include workers whose unemployment benefits were denied because they refused to return to the workplaces that did not comply with coronavirus health and safety standards or positions that were rejected due to these concerns.
The change in eligibility takes effect immediately, but officials have warned that it may take at least a month, if not more, for workers’ claims to be approved, due to the significant delays that plague state unemployment agencies.
Eligible workers under the new guidelines will receive retroactive payments for unemployment insurance claims that date back to the start of the pandemic, when the PUA program was created to help temporary workers, self-employed workers and those who stopped working to care for a sick relative or school – elderly child. They will also be eligible for the $ 600 per week supplementary bonus that the federal government approved until the end of July.
The new guidelines do not appear to help people who stopped working last year because they felt insecure – another category of unemployed workers who have been denied benefits despite some limited eligibility for PUA.
“Workers were in this situation where they had to choose between accepting work that put them at risk of exposure to COVID-19 or refusing such work and then having their unemployment insurance denied,” said Suzan LeVine, chief deputy deputy secretary for employment and training, which until the end of last month ran the Washington State Department of Employment Security. “The action we are taking today helps to ease that decision, to ease that tension.”
Department of Labor (DOL) officials said they did not have an estimate of how many people would be eligible for unemployment insurance under the updated guidelines. The guidelines will also expand eligibility for some workers who lost hours at work, such as in restaurants, but were not eligible for unemployment insurance because of technical details, such as not earning enough wages to qualify.
Workers in unsafe workplaces will be required to certify, under threat of perjury, that their employer did not comply with local, state or national standards on coronavirus, such as rules related to social detachment, disinfection and wearing a mask, the DOL said.
The provision appears to target the approximately 37,000 people who were denied unemployment insurance after being fired and refused to return to work last year – about four times the level of 2019.
But it will have little effect on the 1.23 million people who were denied unemployment insurance after quitting voluntarily.
LeVine said the Department of Labor will be able to track how many people take advantage of the new eligibility to assess the measure’s success.