10 states threaten to cut off unemployment aid to force people back to work

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Many Republican-led states want workers to choose between their health and unemployment benefits.

Even as unemployment claims passed the 40-million mark last week, a Post-ABC poll published Monday shows that a majority of Americans — 57% — say that controlling the spread of coronavirus is more important than reopening parts of the economy.

Yet many Republican-led states are forcing workers to choose between risking their health and keeping unemployment benefits, even as health officials issue dire warnings about the consequences of reopening businesses too soon.

Public officials in at least eight GOP-led states — Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Utah — have notified workers that the coronavirus is not a sufficient excuse for missing work and that refusing to attend work out of concern for the virus could lead to a loss of unemployment benefits.

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Two additional two states — Ohio and Oklahoma — are actively encouraging employers to report employees who may be staying home for health reasons so the state can rescind their benefits.

Employees who voluntarily quit a job are generally disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, but most states have exceptions, including provisions put in place during this pandemic.

The coronavirus relief bill signed into law on March 27 allows states to distribute an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits. Even individuals who may not qualify unemployment insurance in other circumstances, such as a parent who needs to stay home because a child's school is closed or an individual caring for a family member who has tested positive for the coronavirus, still qualify for this federal benefit.

The specific criteria for collecting unemployment vary by state. Yet many Republican officials opted to issue blanket statements threatening to cut off all benefits if individuals could not or would not return to work during a pandemic.

In late April, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called the failure by workers to return to their jobs at a reopened business "a voluntary quit," adding, "They would not be eligible for the unemployment money."

Fitzgerald Washington, secretary of the Alabama Department of Labor, declared on April 29, "It's important for workers to know that if their employer reopens or otherwise calls them back to work, they must do so, unless they have a good work-related cause."

Washington also said, "Attempts to collect unemployment benefits after quitting without a good work-related cause can be considered fraud."

In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said on May 11 that "if you are currently unemployed and your employer calls you back to work, I strongly recommend you go back to work," adding, "if you choose not to go back to work you could become ineligible [for unemployment insurance]."

In Utah, workers were told by the state that they "must accept suitable offers to return to work or risk losing unemployment benefits."

In Ohio, the state's unemployment office set up a website that employers can use to report workers who do not show up due to coronavirus fears, allowing the state to use the information to start proceedings to end that person's unemployment benefits.

Oklahoma has a banner at the top of the state's coronavirus frequently asked questions page warning in bold letters that "Fraud Hurts Everyone!" and requesting that employers email the state to "report any unemployment insurance fraud."

Missouri's Department of Labor even created a flyer for employers to print out and post in their businesses that reads, "Quitting a job due to fear of exposure to COVID-19, absent advice from your health care provider, is not considered good cause for quitting under the law. Quitting a job without good cause to obtain unemployment benefits may be considered fraud."

Despite the high level of unemployment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on May 21 that he would not extend the $600 of additional unemployment benefits authorized in the relief bill. In late April, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was even more adamant, saying, "I promise you, over our dead bodies, this will get reauthorized," referring to the unemployment assistance.

The insistence from state officials that workers risk their health to return to work came as many Republicans lawmakers across the country have demanded an end to broad stay-at-home orders in order to reopen parts of the economy.

Far-right protesters, some armed, some belonging to extremist militias, have shown up outside state capitols to protest guidelines put in place to slow the spread of the virus and are being shown support by many elected Republicans, including Donald Trump.

The GOP-led push to reopen many parts of the economy is proceeding even as health modeling projects that lifting restrictions too soon will lead to more coronavirus infections and tens of thousands more deaths.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found "rising mobility in most U.S. states as well as the easing of social distancing measures expected in 31 states by May 11, indicating that growing contacts among people will promote transmission of the coronavirus."

The group's model predicts nearly 135,000 deaths in the country by the beginning of August, which is twice as high as the group's mid-April estimate.

As of Tuesday, more than 1.8 million people in the country are confirmed to have the coronavirus, according to the New York Times, and at least 105,095 people have died.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.