The Plot To Steal Your Unemployment Benefits

Arthur Delaney

President Donald Trump wants workers to be “warriors” willing to risk their lives returning to their jobs, even though officials in his own administration fear a coronavirus resurgence if people let up on social distancing. 

Trump can’t force states to reopen, and he can’t force people to go out to restaurants. But he does have some leverage over workers. 

Congress created expansive new unemployment benefits that Trump’s Department of Labor, in concert with state workforce agencies, is trying to withhold from people who won’t return to their jobs ― even if it’s not safe. 

Kristina Kozak of Salt Lake City started receiving unemployment benefits in April after she was furloughed from her job at REI. This month, with stores reopening in a limited capacity, the company asked her to come back. But she has asthma, upper respiratory issues and a compromised immune system due to a rare form of lipodystrophy that causes problems with her internal organs. Going back as the pandemic continues seemed like a risk.

“Any sickness I get goes right to my chest,” said Kozak, 46. “I tend to get a lot sicker than other people.”

She said she called the Utah Department of Workforce Services and explained her health problem but was still told she’d probably lose benefits if she refused the job. The agency sent a form for her health care provider to fill out to document her health problems. But they said they needed it back by May 31, and she couldn’t get a medical appointment until June 3. 

Now she’s trying to decide whether to take medical leave, which would allow her to keep her health insurance but with substantially less income, or to return to work and risk exposure to the coronavirus. The other option would be to quit the job and lose her health insurance and probably also her unemployment benefits. 

Her attempts to get hold of anyone at the state office who might be better able to clarify her options have been unsuccessful. 

There are supposed to be exceptions for people like Kozak.

When Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, it added $600 per week to unemployment benefits and broadened eligibility to include people who are not eligible for regular benefits, such as the self-employed, gig workers and people who quit their jobs because of the pandemic. 

The extra money and new criteria were supposed to help people stay home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Department of Labor has specifically said that someone is eligible for benefits under the new rules if they refuse to return to their job because a health provider has advised them to self-quarantine due to a “serious health condition” causing a compromised immune system. It’s one of several criteria requiring self-certification, meaning the applicant attests to their doctor’s advice and a note from the doctor shouldn’t be necessary. But many states have failed to make this policy clear. 

An unprecedented 40 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits over the past few months, and the vast majority of the claims are for regular benefits rather than the special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the formal name of the benefits with the broader eligibility criteria. 

Kozak is receiving regular state-funded unemployment insurance, which typically bars eligibility to people who quit their jobs. If she’s deemed ineligible for the regular benefits, she would theoretically become eligible for the pandemic benefits, which would pay the same amount, including the extra $600. 

Kevin Burt, director of the unemployment insurance division at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said someone with underlying health problems wouldn’t necessarily lose their state benefits for turning down work ― contrary to what Kozak said she was told. 

Burt said the department considers someone’s health risks if they say they had good cause to refuse employment, “and those that are verified as high risk are approved for good cause and can remain on their state unemployment benefits with no need to apply” for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. 

In a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia last week, Senate Democrats said the department ought to make sure states “proactively” help people switch from regular to pandemic benefits if they have to turn down an offer due to an underlying health condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said people with moderate to severe asthma or compromised immune systems are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, right, joins President Donald Trump during a daily coronavirus briefing last month at the White House. Senate Democrats have asked the Labor Department to help eligible people switch from regular jobless benefits to special pandemic unemployment aid. (Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images)

The department has not responded to the letter. A spokesperson noted to HuffPost that the department has provided guidance to states on administering regular unemployment insurance in the context of the pandemic and that “good cause” provisions allowing people to refuse work and keep their benefits are a matter of state law. The spokesperson also acknowledged that workers may still be eligible for the PUA benefits if they refuse work, depending on “fact-specific circumstances.”

But the spokesperson declined to comment on whether the department should make sure eligible workers don’t miss out on benefits for no good reason. 

Scalia boasted in April that he had made sure Uber and Lyft drivers would qualify for the new pandemic unemployment assistance. But as of last week, nine states had not managed to start paying the PUA benefits to anyone at all. 

Scalia has seemed more concerned that there might be loafers abusing the system. The Labor Department’s most recent guidance to states told them to encourage employers to notify them of anyone refusing to return to their job, since cracking down on fraud is a “top priority” for the department. 

Millions of people who think they’re eligible for pandemic unemployment assistance are going to be disappointed, said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality in Washington, D.C. 

“If this were a Clinton or Biden administration we wouldn’t be having this conversion,” Dutta-Gupta said. “They would have issued guidance to states saying, ’You can’t take people’s benefits away if they don’t feel safe.” 

I don’t want to think about drowning in my own lung fluids or renal failure. Nancy Russell

Utah put out a press release encouraging employers to notify the state of such job refusers while burying information about possible exceptions in a document answering frequently asked questions for employees, which specifies that anyone who claims they’re at high risk of serious illness better have some medical documentation to prove it. 

Some states are less strict. The California Employment Development Department, for instance, has said workers can refuse to go back to work and keep their regular unemployment benefits if their job isn’t essential. The Texas Workforce Commission has outlined legitimate reasons for job refusal for anyone at risk of serious illness or who lives with someone who is. 

Several workers around the country have told HuffPost they just don’t know whether they can keep their benefits if they refuse to go back to their jobs, despite their health conditions. When they try to call their state workforce agency, they can’t get an answer ― and often can’t get an actual  human being on the line. 

Nancy Russell said she resigned in April from her job at an AIDS service organization near her home in Waterville, Maine. She said she’s HIV-positive and recently finished radiation for breast cancer. She loved her job but thought it would be too risky to continue being around co-workers and clients. 

Russell, 77, said she filed an unemployment claim in April and has spent hours on the phone trying to reach someone at the Maine Department of Labor but was told that because she’d voluntarily quit, she couldn’t get benefits. She said she received a letter this week notifying her the department had scheduled an interview to review her case ― on July 21. 

“If I was younger and didn’t have Social Security, what would I do? Lose my house?” she said. 

Still, the decision to quit working wasn’t that difficult. 

“I don’t want to think about drowning in my own lung fluids or renal failure,” she said. “No, thank you.”

The first person to tell someone whether they’ll be able to keep their unemployment benefits is often their own employer, since employers are notified of claims each week and have the power to contest them. 

Mark Sheets of Lisbon, Ohio, works for a company that repairs high-tech gadgets inside people’s homes. He’d been furloughed and receiving unemployment since April, but his employer has asked him to return to work, which involves house calls. Since he has diabetes, he didn’t think that was a good idea ― but he said his manager told him he’d be fired and lose his benefits if he didn’t come back. 

“I believed him, and then I decided to go to a couple different websites and researched what my rights were,” Sheets said. 

He said he’d got a note from his doctor ordering him to stay home but spent hours on the phone trying to figure out how to get the note to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. He said that when he most recently logged on to the department website, where he certifies his continued eligibility each week, there was a form for his doctor to fill out. So he called his doctor’s office and filled out the form with the doctor’s secretary on the phone. 

“I want to work,” he said in an email. “I just don’t want to be laying in a hospital bed on a ventilator, near death, wishing I had made a better choice.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.