WASHINGTON — The Biden administration expanded unemployment insurance eligibility Thursday to include workers who refused job offers at unsafe worksites, making good on a pledge to reduce the pressure on people who say they have been forced to choose between staying healthy or getting a paycheck.
The Department of Labor made the shift Thursday in response to a January executive order from President Joe Biden that broadened the eligibility of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to include workers whose unemployment benefits were denied because they refused to return to workplaces that were not in compliance with coronavirus health and safety standards or turned down positions because of those concerns.
The change in eligibility goes into effect immediately, but officials cautioned that it could take at least a month, if not longer, for workers’ claims to be approved, given the significant delays plaguing state unemployment agencies.
Workers eligible under the new guidelines will receive backdated payments for unemployment claims dating to the beginning of the pandemic, when the PUA program was created to help gig workers, self-employed workers and those who stopped working to care for a sick relative or school-aged child. They will also be eligible for the supplemental $600-a-week bonus that the federal government has approved through the end of July.
The new guidelines do not appear to help people who quit work in the past year because they felt unsafe — another category of unemployed workers who have been denied benefits, despite some limited eligibility for PUA.
“Workers have been in this situation where they have had to choose between accepting work that puts them at risk of COVID-19 exposure or refusing such work and then being denied unemployment benefits,” said Suzan LeVine, principal deputy assistant secretary for employment and training, who until late last month ran Washington state’s Employment Security Department. “The action that we’re taking today helps alleviate that decision, to alleviate that tension.”
Department of Labor (DOL) officials said they did not have an estimate of how many people would be newly eligible for unemployment insurance under the updated guidelines. The guidelines will also expand eligibility for some workers who have lost hours at work, such as at restaurants, but have not been eligible for unemployment insurance because of technicalities, such as not making enough in wages to qualify.
Workers at unsafe workplaces will be required to attest, under the threat of perjury, that their employer was not in compliance with local, state or national standards about the coronavirus, such as rules related to social distancing, disinfecting and mask-wearing, the DOL said.
The provision seems targeted at the roughly 37,000 people who were denied unemployment insurance after being laid off and declining to return to work last year — about four times the level from 2019.
But it will have little effect on the 1.23 million people who have been denied unemployment insurance after voluntarily quitting work.
LeVine said that the Labor Department will be able to track how many people take advantage of the new eligibility, to gauge the measure’s success.