President Joe Biden signs an executive order during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 21, 2021.
Alex Wong | Getty Images News | Getty Images
President Joe Biden ordered federal labor officials on Friday to clarify when unemployed people can decline a job offer and continue to receive unemployment benefits.
Refusal to work generally excludes unemployment benefits for the recipients. However, the law allows them to refuse unsuitable work – for example in cases of unsafe working conditions – and continue to receive help.
During the pandemic, there has been confusion about how such rules apply and when Americans can reasonably decline a job offer. For example, this may apply to safety concerns such as wearing masks, social distancing, and disinfecting surfaces in shops, manufacturing facilities, and offices.
Biden called on the US Department of Labor “to clarify whether workers who reject unsafe working conditions can continue to receive unemployment insurance,” according to an ordinance signed on Friday.
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This ensures that unemployed Americans don’t have to choose between paying bills and protecting their families from Covid-19.
The policy will be most effective for frontline workers and color communities, according to employee representatives. They have suffered a disproportionate number of layoffs since March and are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19.
“I think this really ensures that there is a federal standard for this program and that states cannot disregard the security risk of unemployment insurance,” said George Wentworth, senior counsel with the National Employment Law Project and a former Connecticut Department of Labor officer.
According to the Department of Labor, around 16 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits in early January. That number is likely to increase in the coming weeks.
Different state standards
States set different rules on what constitutes suitable work when a job offer is submitted. The Trump administration’s labor officials subscribed to state law rather than setting a national standard.
“We don’t want workers to return to insecure jobs,” said Eugene Scalia, head of the US Department of Labor under President Donald Trump, during a Senate unemployment hearing in June.
However, safety standards are generally covered by state law, Scalia said at the time.
Republican lawmakers were particularly concerned about a higher prevalence of job rejection in the spring and summer when unemployed workers were given a $ 600 weekly benefit allowance. Subsequent research showed no evidence of these dynamics in the overall economy.
Some state governors may also have confused workers about their rights by making black and white statements during the pandemic, Wentworth said.
“If you are an employer and you offer to return your employee to work and they choose not to, it is a voluntary termination,” said Kim Reynolds, governor of Iowa, in April. “Therefore they would not be entitled to unemployment benefits.”
Democrats had criticized Scalia for failing to include federal safety standards during the pandemic and generally welcomed Biden’s executive order.
“It is a long overdue move to protect workers from having to choose between unemployment benefits and unsafe working conditions,” said MP Don Beyer, D-Va., Who is expected to chair the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.
The ordinance is in line with another health and safety ordinance issued on Thursday and directs the U.S. Department of Labor to issue revised guidelines to employers within two weeks.