Roughly 26 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of others are risking safety to work in essential roles, or are navigating new challenges working at home. So what rights should workers, or the newly unemployed, be aware of?
PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Amna Nawaz and Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project took your questions on the subject on Friday.
Watch their discussion in the player above.
Nawaz and Conti addressed a broad swath of audience questions on everything from employee recourse, to support for working parents, to unemployment benefits. You can read highlights from their conversation below.
What should be top of mind for people who have to physically go back to work?
A number of states have started to allow businesses to reopen, despite the recommendations of many public health officials, who say this could worsen the spread of novel coronavirus.
If you do have to go back to work, Conti stressed that you should consult the CDC for guidance on the protective equipment you need in order to do your job safely. “Make sure when you go back, that your employer is giving you what you need, whether it’s gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, or frequent opportunities to go to the bathroom to wash your hands,” Conti said.
Could there be recourse for employees who don’t feel safe at work?
If you don’t feel that your employer has provided the proper protections for you to return to work in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Conti said you “do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job.” You can do so by filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that an employer might not retaliate and might not either treat you worse on the job, or perhaps fire you, and I certainly hope not, but you do have the legal right to stand up for healthy and safe treatment on the job,” Conti said.
If you feel that you’ve been retaliated against by your employer for asking for more protections as part of an organized group such as a union, you can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Can I get unemployment benefits if I quit my job due to health concerns?
If you quit your job due to concerns about your health or the health of others in your family, Conti said you may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. But if you are generally healthy and your employer is taking reasonable precautions for your health and safety, you likely will not have a case for why you cannot return to work, if ordered back.
“We live in a country generally where employers have an awful lot of rights and workers have very few” as long as the legal definition of discrimination isn’t met, Conti said. “So I urge people to take every safety and health precaution they possibly can if they do have to go back to work, because employers have a lot of latitude to order you back to work.” She also encouraged workers to talk to their employers about making accommodations and discuss safety precautions they can take if they are unable to continue working from home.
Will refusing a job offer jeopardize someone’s unemployment benefits?
If you are receiving unemployment in the U.S., it is generally under the condition that you provide documentation that you are actively seeking work, and that you will not turn down suitable employment opportunities.
Conti said there are some exceptions that may arise during the COVID-19 pandemic, but only under particular circumstances: “You have to take that job, absent some really objective extenuating circumstance that you are older, that you are immunocompromised and you are more vulnerable, or you live with somebody who is,” Conti said, or you can prove that your employer is calling you back under unhealthy or unsafe conditions.
One major caveat to this rule, however, is that many states have loosened or eliminated their job-seeking requirements given the current circumstances, so Conti said you should be sure to check your state’s unemployment website if you are considering turning down a job while receiving these benefits.
What resources are available to working parents at this time?
While many working parents are feeling strained at their jobs now that they are home with their kids, Conti said that none of the legislation passed in light of the COVID-19 outbreak has addressed loosening productivity requirements for employees with children. “If your employer is not willing to accommodate you out of the goodness of his or her heart, then there isn’t any legal protection for you, unfortunately,” Conti said of performance and expectations at work. She added, though, that if you are part of a union, you can try to negotiate for different terms and working conditions during the current situation. The coronavirus relief bill signed by President Donald Trump last month allows for parents, or those caring for a child who is out of school because of the virus, to receive pandemic unemployment assistance.
Conti recognized that many parents may be called back to work while their kids are still home without schools being reopened or widespread child care. In this case, they can look into whether they qualify for paid leave or short-term disability before going back to work. The coronavirus relief bill also includes a requirement for employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid family leave to workers whose child care provider is unavailable or closed. Although it has a number of exemptions, Conti recommended that parents seeking child care resources during the pandemic ask their employer about it.