Q: My wife works for a day-care business that has been closed by order of the state during the coronavirus pandemic. She was collecting unemployment, including the extra $600 a week provided by the federal government under the CARES Act, but then received an email that the day-care had been approved for a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program. She was told to stop claiming unemployment benefits as she would be paid her regular salary.

Now the employer is making her work online a few hours a week via video and do busywork. Isn’t the PPP paying people NOT to work?

A: The Paycheck Protection Program, enacted under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), offers an eight-week loan to small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic — for example, businesses like your wife’s day-care that have been deemed nonessential and ordered to close. The goal of the program, according to Declan Leonard, business law partner at Berenzweig Leonard, “is to keep employees on the company payroll so they don’t go onto the already swollen unemployment rolls” and also so it will be “easier to ramp up operations when the business can fully open back up.”

Leonard adds that “the company can still choose to use PPP funds to pay that employee, even if the employee is not actually performing real work.” But that doesn’t mean the loan is designed to pay people “not to work.” If the employer has tasks that need doing, even if they seem pointless, it can certainly require employees to do them if it’s paying them for their time.

But even if no real work is getting done, Leonard points out that there’s another incentive for businesses to keep workers on the payroll instead of firing or laying them off: PPP loans can be converted to grants and be forgiven if employers (1) use the funds for appropriate purposes (payroll, business mortgage/rent/utilities) and (2) maintain employee and compensation levels for the eight weeks of the loan term. “So an employer who forces an employee onto the unemployment rolls . . . is jeopardizing the ability to get its PPP loan forgiven,” Leonard notes.

All things considered, from the worker’s perspective, I’d take the steady paycheck and the mindless busywork performed in the safety of my home over temporary unemployment benefits (as of now, the $600 Cares Act boost lasts only through July). Of course, if your wife’s regular rate of pay makes wading through the unemployment benefits process look like a better deal, I think that calls for us to reexamine how severely and systemically our nation undervalues the work of child-care providers.

Q: I have been furloughed by my employer, who is still paying us 20 percent of our salary to cover health-care benefits. Do I need to report these as wages on my unemployment claim? I am 100 percent not working during the furlough period, so these wages are not technically from working.

A: You may not feel that you “earned” those wages, but they’re still income, and your employer is going to report that it paid you that income, so you should absolutely report them as such when you file for unemployment benefits. Edgar Ndjatou, executive director at worker advocacy group Workplace Fairness, warned me that when applicants under-report income, it’s just a matter of time before the unemployment office finds out. When that happens, you’ll end up having to pay back what you received and getting hit with penalties — or worse.

A coin is dropped into a piggy bank.  (Ron Antonelli / Bloomberg)
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