For some states, the concern is that residents who are offered their old jobs back simply may not accept them, choosing instead to continue tapping historically generous unemployment aid. The $2 trillion congressional coronavirus relief package signed by President Trump in March greatly added to weekly benefit checks for out-of-work Americans, and some people may be earning more than they did previously.
Business leaders say they desperately need workers to return to stores, restaurants and other operations to stay afloat financially. Labor activists, however, contend the reality is far more complicated: Some now-unemployed Americans weren’t making much money in the first place, so they may not want to risk their safety just to return to underpaid old gigs.
In the process, some states’ public comments have frustrated federal lawmakers, labor activists and public health officials, who say forcing workers to return so quickly might be dangerous — and could undermine the country’s response to the deadly pandemic.
“These states are offering people the choice to endanger your life or starve,” said Damon A. Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO.
Generally, states have the legal right to revoke benefits if unemployed Americans are offered jobs comparable to their past positions yet decline to take them. In response to the novel coronavirus, regulators also have put in place special exemptions to protect people out of work because they’re sick or caring for family members diagnosed with covid-19, the disease the virus causes.
Still, the early threats of enforcement — at a moment when the coronavirus has killed more than 61,000 in the United States — have left experts questioning whether some governors are prioritizing economic recovery over public health.
“I would argue having to go back to wait tables during a pandemic might not count as similar working conditions,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. She said workers could challenge such reversals of benefits, but doing so might be tough.
The U.S. Labor Department has affirmed the restrictions, even as more than 30 million Americans are out of work and seeking critical jobless aid. “Barring unusual circumstances” the agency said in public guidance, “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.”
State officials nationwide have echoed that approach. Tennessee, for example, has said it may “potentially disqualify claimants from receiving unemployment insurance benefits” if workers who are temporarily laid off turn down an opportunity to retake their jobs, said Chris Cannon, a spokesman for the state’s unemployment agency.
Iowa also has signaled in recent statements it plans to ramp up its enforcement efforts. Its directive has taken on added significance since Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that could result in meat-processing plants staying open — including those in Iowa where workers recently died of the coronavirus. A spokesperson for Iowa’s governor did not respond to a request for comment.
In Oklahoma, top economic officials even publicly discussed restricting benefits last week in an attempt to get residents back on the job faster. The state is among more than a dozen with a minimum wage of $7.25, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“If there is a claimant out there that says, ‘You know what, I can make more money sitting at home, drawing this extra $600, and some other benefits, then if the employer will contact us, that is considered a refusal of civil work and we will cut off their benefits,” said Teresa Thomas Keller, the deputy director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, during the call conducted over Zoom and published online. The Frontier, a Tulsa news outlet, first reported on the meeting.
“I know that’s been a concern,” Keller continued. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Gee, some of these claimants will be making more money on unemployment than they did while they were working,’ but that will be a temporary situation.”
In response, Sean Kouplen, the state’s secretary of commerce, said it was “the best news that I have heard all day,” adding he had witnessed such reluctance to work firsthand. “I have a lot of companies, and we’re trying to hire people back. And they’re saying, ‘Nope, we’re good, we’re making plenty of money on the unemployment piece.’ So I really appreciate you saying that.”
Keller later added Oklahoma even could potentially stop sending residents the additional $600 per week in federal unemployment aid authorized under the Cares Act in an attempt to compel people to return to work more quickly. “If it was a huge problem, and we felt like people were taking advantage, we could cut it off,” she said.
Asked about the exchange, Kouplen late Tuesday said that no such policy to cut federal aid dollars is under consideration. Otherwise, he said it is “long-standing practice in Oklahoma, and I’m sure in other states across the country” that if you’re offered re-employment and turn it down then “your unemployment is removed.”
Kouplen himself is a local businessman: He is the chief executive of Regent Bank in Tulsa, as well as a local restaurant, which he said recently had to let go of a handful of workers — but now is hiring them back with the help of federal small-business funds.
“I’m not personally going to turn in an employee that doesn’t wish to come back,” Kouplen said Tuesday, but added, “It is a significant issue for employers. It really is. It’s a real issue, and it’s going to be a nationwide issue where employers of entry-level positions are trying to hire people back.”
Top representatives for Oklahoma businesses said Wednesday they share that concern. “In order for the Oklahoma economy to recover, we need those people back in the workforce. We need businesses open,” said Chad Warmington, the president of the State Chamber of Oklahoma.
Warmington cautioned that workers shouldn’t “get a raw deal being forced to go back to work with an unsafe environment and worse pay.” But he added about the recovery effort, “What we don’t want to do is have the federal government have a plan that’s competing with the private sector.”
The potential that people may have their benefits revoked drew sharp rebukes among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which bolstered unemployment-insurance programs precisely in response to the pandemic. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the problem began with the fact that Republican governors are “casting public health aside and forcing their states to ‘reopen.’ ”
“Everyone wants to find a new normal and get back to our lives,” he added in a statement, “but pretending the crisis is over when it’s not over will make it much harder to contain the virus and for workers to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.”