Workers who quit rather than risk COVID on job still hope to collect unemployment

Jonathan Burlingame had seen enough in mid-July.

The machines at the factory he worked at in South Boston were not wiped down enough, he said. Gloves and masks were in short supply, except for the workers who, like himself, took it upon themselves to bring their own. And he heard that some workers were testing positive, even though management hadn’t said a word.

With his parents moving in with him in a matter of weeks—his father, 75, a two-time cancer survivor and mother, 71, both fleeing rising coronavirus cases in Florida—Burlingame quit, deciding that he couldn’t continue to go into a workplace he no longer believed was safe. Burlingame’s employer did not respond to a request for comment.

Burlingame was denied unemployment insurance by the commonwealth of Massachusetts, falling into the gaps between state and federal laws that only give limited protection to people who choose to quit work for safety reasons. He has been living without any income since July.

Burlingame is one of more than 1.5 million people who quit their jobs voluntarily because of the pandemic last year and filed for unemployment insurance, according to data from the Department of Labor, more than twice the amount over the same period in 2019. Some 80 percent have had their claims denied. A separate group of 75,000 have applied for unemployment insurance after being laid off and declining to return to work; 49 percent of that group had their claims denied.

The statistics speak to an unfortunate legacy of the pandemic: many workers have been forced to choose between a paycheck and their or their family’s health.

“My dad beat cancer twice,” Burlingame said. “I’m not going to bring something home to him and let him have two big wins beating cancer and then have this kind of thing shut him down because someone wanted their profit margin to be high.”

Complicating matters, a jobless claim gets treated differently under disparate state unemployment systems, pointingto the challenges facing the Biden administration, which seeks to cut down on the number of workers who have been denied unemployment assistance because they were concerned about the safety risks of going to work.

A new executive action issued by President Biden in January directs the Department of Labor to clarify federal rules so that workers who refuse to go to unsafe workplaces will be more likely to be granted unemployment insurance. A White House official said the Department of Labor’s guidance will clarify what qualifies as an unsafe workplace.

“You could be denied unemployment insurance because you’re offered a job and you didn’t take it. It’s wrong,” Biden said, announcing the executive action last month. “No one should have to choose between their livelihoods and their own health or the health of their loved ones in the middle of a deadly pandemic.”

The Washington Post interviewed more than a dozen people who said they quit their jobs, or declined to return to their jobs after the reopenings last year because of fears about coronavirus infections. Another handful of workers said that they continued attending jobs they believed were unsafe, because they did not think they would be granted unemployment insurance.

Nawal Abbas, 52, a Sudanese immigrant with blood cancer told The Post she worked for months at a Walmart in Iowa City during the pandemic, unaware that her health condition could qualify her for unemployment.

“If I stop how I’m going to survive?” she said in Arabic, with translation from an advocate at the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, which has helped Abbas with her rent. “And if I work, I might die, too.”

All spoke of the impossible decision they faced.

Many spoke of months of back-and-forth calls with unemployment administrators, watching bank accounts dwindle as they struggled to get by without a paycheck or aid. And many said they had high hopes that the executive order could result in them receiving some support at long last.

“I was absolutely elated,” said Troy Williamson, 29, who hasn’t received any unemployment aid since he quit his job at a day-care center in Toledo over the summer, worried about his high-risk girlfriend and concerned about a lack of proper safety precautions at his workplace. “This is something that really needs to happen. Not just for myself—there are so many people who need this help.”

But experts caution that the executive order’s influence could depend on how the Biden administration defines “unsafe workplaces,” as well as the complicated dynamics between federal and state unemployment law and administration.

Workers who quit their jobs voluntarily may still have trouble getting unemployment benefits, experts say. The new order appearsto help only those who are already unemployed, turn down return-to-work offers or other employment offers because the workplacesare unsafe.

To qualify for unemployment benefits, workers who quit their jobs for safety reasons face a higher threshold than those who turn down work: Typically they have to show that not only was there a significant health risk in the workplace, but also that they first sought to remedy their concerns by bringing them to their employers’ attention, according to George Wentworth, an unemployment expert at the National Employment Law Project.

That hasn’t always worked out for workers like Williamson, who said he raised safety concerns with administrators and managers repeatedly after the day-care center reopened before quitting—and communicated that in his unemployment claim. He also complained to the county health department. The day-care center did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

These provisions are complicated by other factors as well: the unprecedented volume of jobless claims that have swamped underfunded state unemployment agencies, and the way that unemployment benefits became politicized, like many other issues raised by the pandemic.

Many Republican-led states pressured people to go back to work during the reopening push last spring, warning that those who turned down suitable work would be penalized, amid concerns workers would take advantage of historically generous unemployment benefits available at the time. Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee and Iowa even set up specific channels for businesses to report employees who turned down work.

Businesses have been in a difficult position when it comes to unemployment insurance during the pandemic, said Kevin Kuhlman, a vice president at the National Federation of Independent Business.

“They had either had employees decline the job offer or had to offer higher salaries for employees to return,” he said. “Our overall concern is just, you know, inserting more friction between the small-business owners and small-business employees.”

The Labor Department under President Donald Trump signaled support for restrictions,writing in guidance last spring that “barring unusual circumstances, a request that a furloughed employee return to his or her job very likely constitutes an offer of suitable employment that the employee must accept.”

Experts said that a more worker-friendly interpretation of federal unemployment laws could push some state unemployment agencies to side more frequently with workers who turn down employment that poses a significant risk to them.

“The fact that the Department of Labor hasn’t pushed back when governors or other officials make statements that are running roughshod over a thoughtful reasoned application of the law to the facts has been problematic,” Wentworth said. “When governors start basically acting on behalf of businesses that aren’t complying with necessary protocols and saying you’re going to lose your job if you don’t go back to unsafe work, they’ve overstepped.”

For their part, workers told The Post of the challenging decision they faced early on in the pandemic, with most having little awareness of the technicalities of their state’s unemployment insurance laws.

James Burrus, 54, who worked as a poker dealer at a casino in Maryland before the pandemic, said he did not even file for unemployment insurance after declining to return to work during the reopening in late June, fearing for the safety of himself and his asthmatic 13-year-old daughter. He said he was not able to get clear information from the state about whether he was eligible. He did not want to be accused of fraud and potentially be told he owed the government money.

Ashley Vacek, 23, who lives outside of Houston, said she was denied unemployment by Texas after quitting her secretary job at a veterinary clinic in December.

She said nearly half of the couple dozen workers at the clinic came down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. After taking herself to get tested for at least the fourth time, Vacek said, she decided to quit, wanting to protect herself and family members, like her fiance’s father and her pregnant sister.

On her unemployment benefitsapplication, she detailed what she said were basic safety lapses at the clinic, describing clients not wearing masks and a lack of sanitizing procedures, she said.

Her claim was denied within days, she said. Her pregnant sister, who is due next week, was also denied unemployment after quitting a job for similar reasons, she said.

“I feel like I shouldn’t have had to be put in the position—where you either choose to be healthy or choose to keep making money,” Vacek said.

Other workers spoke about the real costs of the pressure they felt to continue working.

Harry Wilson, an 83-year-old from Denver, Iowa, left his part-time job at supermarket chain Hy-Vee last March over health concerns. Wilson’s age, heart disease and COPD made him high-risk for the coronavirus and therefore “unable to work,” according to a health provider’s note later submitted to a judge. He received unemployment insurance through April.

Later,the state told him he never should have gotten the money and ordered him to pay back $4,835.

Wilson spent months appealing the decision and finally reapplying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which covers workers told to stay home by a doctor because they are highly vulnerable to COVID-19, according to guidance from the Department of Labor.

But state employment officials and a judge said he did not qualify. Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s employment agency, did not respond to questions about their policies and specific workers.

By then it was late October. Wilson was supporting a daughter with cancer, he said, and still under orders to pay back thousands of dollarsin benefits.

He decided it was time to go back to work.

Within a couple weeks of his return, Wilson said, the telltale symptoms showed up: coughing, achy bones, a headache. Wilson tested positive for the coronavirus. Soon his 82-year-old wife came down with it as well, a bout so severe she needed to be hospitalized and put on oxygen. Wilson feared for her life, but she recovered.

Wilson is back at work now. Hy-Vee confirmed he works for the chain but did not comment further. Wilson’s jobless benefits from last March through December were finally granted on Dec. 21, after his story was covered by the Des Moines Register.

“I was kind of disgusted with them for taking so long,” Wilson said.

Biden’s executive action could help workers like Wilson get jobless benefits more quickly. But states will still have significant authority over the process, said Matthew Bodie, an expert in employment law at Saint Louis University School of Law, noting how broadly worded Biden’s executive order is.

The order itself says that government agencies should “promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities” to address the economic crisis caused by the virus. An accompanying fact sheet is more specific, saying Biden wants the Department of Labor to “consider clarifying that workers who refuse unsafe working conditions can still receive unemployment insurance.”

“I don’t know how much that’s going to change things on the ground, though, because I think the red states will still be kind of tougher and the blue states will still be more open-ended,” Bodie said.

Still, many unemployed workers say they have high hopes the Biden administration will make it easier for workers trying to keep themselves or their families safe to receive jobless benefits.

“It’s been one thing after another that just brings you down and gives you less and less hope every time,” Burlingame said. “And this was the first thing where someone finally said, ‘Hey, you’re not replaceable. You matter to us, and we’re going to try to do something to help you out.’ “

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