U.S. extends jobless benefits eligibility to workers worried about COVID-19 safety

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jobless Americans booted from state unemployment insurance programs for refusing to work or accept a job offer because of fears of contracting COVID-19 are now eligible for government-funded assistance, the U.S. Labor Department said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: People who lost their jobs wait in line to file for unemployment benefits, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas, U.S. April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

The new guidance to states followed a request by President Joe Biden last month for the department to consider clarifying that workers have a federally guaranteed right to decline employment that would jeopardize their health and still qualify for unemployment insurance.

“Until now, many workers have faced a devil’s bargain, risk coronavirus infection, or choose some level of safety and live without income support,” said Suzi Levine, principal deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training.

“Today’s guidance means more workers and families will be able to put food on their tables as our nation fights this virus.”

The guidance also expands eligibility for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to workers laid off, or who have had their hours reduced as a direct result of the pandemic.

School workers without a contract or reasonable assurance of continued employment who face reduced paychecks and no assurance of continued pay when schools are closed due to the virus qualify for the PUA program as well.

The new coronavirus-related reasons would apply as if they had been included from the beginning of the PUA program. But people filing a new PUA claim after Dec. 27, 2020, are limited to weeks of unemployment beginning on or after Dec. 6, 2020.

The department will provide states with funds needed to make necessary changes and time to update their systems to enable retroactive payment of PUA to eligible claimants. Applicants are required to self-certify that they are unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of identified coronavirus-related reasons during the applicable time period.

“The department anticipates that the earliest this expanded eligibility will be available is the end of March,” it said. “Those who are eligible, however, should be able to receive the benefits paid retroactive to their date of eligibility.”

The department reported earlier on Thursday that at least 19 million people were on unemployment benefits under all programs in early February.

Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Daniel Wallis