Can You Refuse to Go to Work because of COVID-19?

Many states have begun to lift stay-at-home orders. Nationally, businesses began shutting down in March to limit the spread of coronavirus. Following weeks of “Stay-at-home” orders, “Open-up” talks have now started. Currently, essential businesses like grocery stores and gas stations are open to the public. But as more and more non-essential businesses begin to reopen their doors, what does this mean for employees? Retail establishments, dine-in restaurants, meat processing industries and more are beginning to call employees back to work. With confirmed Covid-19 cases in America currently at over 1.45 million, not everyone is ready to get back to life as normal. What does a return to work order mean for the millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment since mid-March, workers who were furloughed but remain employees with their company, and workers who had their hours cut and qualified for partial unemployment? Do they have to return? Will not returning if called change your unemployment eligibility?

You may not have to return if there are:

Unsafe working conditions:   Workers can argue that the conditions are not safe and try to refuse to go in. Employers must follow safety guidelines from OSHA. OSHA rules were in place before the Covid-19 pandemic and state worker’s right to refuse dangerous work.  Employers must follow guidance state by state and federal officials. That guidance will vary for state to state and may change as businesses reopen and workers are called back in the coming weeks.  It must be documented why your workplace presents a hazardous environment and notify the employer of the need to eliminate the danger to show good cause for quitting. ​Please note​ : Changes may also apply differently to unionized workers. Also, many states have stipulations in their unemployment insurance statutes.

Radical changes to your job:   You may be able to refuse a return to work order if there are drastic changes to your job. Changes can include a significant pay cut, permanent changes to your assigned shift without your agreement, or a change in your work location that would require a much longer commute. Under conditions like these, turning down work may allow for continuing to qualify for unemployment. Adding extra hours to your shift won’t count toward unsuitable work conditions. ​Please note: What is considered a radical change may vary on a case-by-case basis.

In reopening, the CDC’s guidelines must be followed by businesses to protect employees. At a minimum, employers should be providing proper hand-washing stations, additional sanitation, and PPE such as masks or gloves. They should also be following social distancing recommendations. Other measures may be in place but may vary by locality. It’s important to check your state’s department of labor for more details. If an employer is following federal, state, and local safety guidance and calls it’s employees back, they will likely be considered a “suitable work.” Workers cannot refuse suitable work and receive unemployment benefits. A worker also can’t remain on unemployment because those benefits are higher than the pay they would receive if they returned to work. The Department of Labor notes that a nonspecific fear of exposure to the Covid-19 isn’t enough to refuse work or quit your job.

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